‘Irish Christmas’ Delivers Gaelic Flavor to the Holidays

“An Irish Christmas” featured the phenomenal footwork of the Kerry Dance Troupe at Irvine Barclay Theatre on November 26. (Photo courtesy Irvine Barclay Theatre)

It’s been nearly 25 years since Riverdance first burst upon the scene, and the joy and theatricality of traditional Irish dance has been a part of our culture ever since.

It was in Orange County briefly on Monday night, November 26, in the form of “An Irish Christmas” at Irvine Barclay Theatre’s Cheng Hall. In an entertaining and often joyous show, 15 dancers, singers and musicians celebrated the holiday season with a heady mixture of folk music and traditional holiday tunes and carols with moods ranging from upbeat to soulful.

Principal dancer Connor Reider, a featured dancer with The Chieftains and Celtic Fyre, joined the national tour of “An Irish Christmas” in 2015, returning for two subsequent seasons. (Photo courtesy Irvine Barclay Theatre)

Riverdance and the Irish band The Chieftains were never far on Monday night, what with Caterina Coyne (a Riverdance principal dancer) and Connor Reider (principal dancer, The Chieftains) as the evening’s principal dancers, joined by world champion dancer Tyler Schwartz.

The phenomenal footwork of this trio was augmented by that of six members of the Kerry Dance Troupe: Alex Mowatt-Larssen, Kelly Pearson, Siena Rose O’Regan, Tessa Antonia O’Regan, Eliya Raccah, and the troupe’s director, Keara Osborne.

Over the span of two hours, this nonet delivered a comprehensive sampling of traditional dances. Perhaps most familiar (thanks to Riverdance) is the Irish stepdance, but the performance also included the set dance and the less formal Sean Nós. Primarily based in rhythm, all of these steps demand an incredible degree of precision, as well as stamina, strength and grace. To the untrained eye, they appear a skilled mixture of ballet, tap and folk dancing.

During the course of the evening, each of the nine dancers was given a moment in the spotlight as a soloist, their movements peeling off from, then merging with, those of the rest.

Delivering some joyously rhythmic dances from antiquity were the Brush Dance and the Half Door Dance; the Fireworks Dance, wherein the men and women engage in a battle of the sexes competition; and the exciting Bodhrán Dance, where an intricate rhythm is tapped out on the bodhrán (a frame drum dating back to the 14th century), challenging each dancer to duplicate that rhythm with his or her feet.

“The Fireworks Dance” is a face-off between the dance troupe’s women and men. (Photo courtesy Irvine Barclay Theatre)

“An Irish Christmas” also, of course, delivers elements of instrumental and vocal music thanks to the talents of the Kerry troupe’s onstage three-person band and a trio of outstanding sopranos.

Jesse Langen on guitar (and occasionally fife), Ryan McKasson on fiddle and Amy Richter on bodhrán wove lovely traditional arrangements of, and breathed beautiful life and expression into, a wide variety of tunes both familiar and obscure. As with the entire show, each of the three was given solo performing time.

Sopranos Koral Aakre and Milena Gligić and mezzo-soprano Katherine Trimble admirably and entertainingly handled the bulk of the vocal duties, most often appearing as a trio but also taking flight in solos.

Thankfully, the show was light on the glitz factor – its primary materials are, after all, folk songs and dances and traditional holiday-time carols.

Monday night’s performance was packed with songs and dances dedicated to shoemaking, buttermaking, and to the ancient traditions of acting out stories while dressed as “Straw Boys.” As obscure but no less enchanting was the evening-closing “Wren” segment, which showcased traditions of The Day of the Wren (December 26, St. Stephen’s Day), including the North Kerry Blackbird, the oldest known solo set dance.

Those in attendance Monday night might never had previously seen nor heard of any of these, but “An Irish Christmas” also delivered enchanting versions of well-known carols like “Silent Night,” “Carol of the Bells” and “What Child Is This” and a haunting “Ave Maria” along with “Gaudete” (rejoice, rejoice!) from medieval times and some lesser-known traditional works like “The Boar’s Head Carol,” “Wexford Carol” and “In Dulci Jubilo.”

With their rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” vocalists Aakre, Gligić and Trimble engaged in some good-nature one-upsmanship, trying to outdo each other with ever-more outrageous operatic flourishes each time the song came to the phrase “five golden rings.”

Audiences can credit Margaret O’Carroll, the show’s creator, producer and director, with having created an almost seamless blend of music, song and, of course, dance and movement.

The owner of Kerry Irish Productions, Inc., she’s quoted in the print program as calling herself and the company’s members “craftsmen and craftswomen who carry the stories” of the past “to the next generation through everyday events such as storytelling, song, music, dance and our daily rituals.”

Whether presenting ancient versions of well-known Christmas carols or obscure songs and dances from Irish lore, everything about “An Irish Christmas” is lively, joyous, tender, and wholly celebratory of life.

This was the show’s second consecutive Barclay appearance, and considering its warm spirit and overall entertainment value, it’s a sure bet for a slot on the December 2019 schedule.

Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at emarchesewriter@gmail.com.