John F. Kennedy said it best. What's the use of being Irish if the world doesn't break your heart?
Irish music is usually gritty. Even the most hopeful ballads and the most lighthearted drinking songs have an edge of despair to them, and the same goes for the performers. Tommy Makem was a legend, but he wasn’t exactly polished – if he had been, he probably wouldn’t have been a legend at all.
But that polish was what struck this audience member most about the Irish supergroup Celtic Woman at the Milwaukee Theatre Sunday afternoon. These ladies are lace-curtain Irish through and through.
First of all, they're all alarmingly gorgeous. The quartet’s members – Chloë Agnew, Lisa Lambe, Susan McFadden and fiddler Máiréad Nesbitt – look like Druid Disney princesses, with long flowing hair and soft brogues. They speak like they attended finishing school and flash megawatt smiles.
I've always felt that Irish songs are best sung in dimly-lit pubs, with beer on the floor and curse words flying. So when you see these statuesque beauty queens in bejeweled evening gowns, you’re not quite sure what to expect.
But then they start to sing – or in Nesbitt’s case, play the fiddle – and you kind of forget that you ever underestimated them.
Whatever the singing equivalent of the gift of the Blarney is, these girls have it. Their vocal range is wide and they can – and do – hit any note. Each girl could have a successful solo career, undoubtedly, but their voices are made stronger by how well they complement one another, and it made for an intense theatrical experience.
The concert began with the aptly-named "Awakening," and Nesbitt stole the show right out of the gate, not only with her lightning-fast fiddle-playing but with her enchanting ability to dance while doing so (seriously, how is that possible?). She has the strongest stage presence of any in the group, followed closely by the self-possessed Agnew (who was clearly the favorite of the men in the audience). "Nocturne" came next, followed by the playful, lilting"Dúlaman," with powerful accompaniment on the bodhran.
Even during these first few songs, the standing ovations were constant. Audience members ranged in age from well over 50 to well under 15 and were united in their enthusiasm for this group.
An especially big hit of the first half of the show was the cover of "Orinoco Flow" by Enya. Celtic Woman effectively captured the impish etherealism of the original; this performance in particular was also a great example of how their costume design really enhanced their presence, as they sported sheer capes attached to their fingers and twirled around. Later in the evening, their dramatic, Cinderella-esque (I am serious, they really do look like Disney princesses) ballgowns had the same effect.
They closed the first half of the show with a beautiful rendition of "Danny Boy." I have mixed feelings about this legendary Irish tearjerker; first of all, it’s not really Irish at all, and secondly, I feel like it’s a little cloying at times. But I’ll give it to Celtic Woman: they pulled it off. It’s a difficult song to sing, especially in the closing lyrics, but they knocked every note out of the park and even this skeptic got goosebumps when they urged us to "say an Ave there for me."
The second half of the show was less oriented to Irish music than the first; it began with a powerful bagpipe performance of "Amazing Grace" and continued with a Broadway tribute consisting of "I Dreamed a Dream" (where Agnew really got to show off her chops) and "The Circle of Life" (a charming performance by Lambe, but lacking in a certain Elton John showmanship). Lambe also impressed with a simple version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
"Nil Se’n La" was the highlight of the second act, and really of the entire show. Each vocalist and member of the band was able to show their stuff; Nesbitt and her fiddle dueled with the onstage bodhran player, and the tour’s resident Irish dancer performed an impressive jig (he was really talented and tragically underused, in my opinion). This number was the most vibrant and alive of all the performances.
The show ended on a mellow note with "You Raise Me Up," which Celtic Woman has arguably recorded to almost as much acclaim as Josh Groban (though the tune is not an original work of either artist). The encore was "The Parting Glass." Usually a solo, this ensemble interpretation was given a nice texture by the group’s harmonization.
All in all, Celtic Woman provides a different look at the Irish experience -perhaps a more sanitized one, but powerful nonetheless (their album sales can attest to that).
I think the greatest compliment I can give this group is that, during their performance of "Amazing Grace," I looked over at the couple next to me and saw a grown man singing along while holding his wife’s hand.
Sure, they’ll break your heart. But in a good way.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.