"It's Angela's Ashes . . . the musical!"
That's a joke.
Jim Peterson is searching for a way to describe Cinnabar Theater's toe-tapping new show A Couple of Blaguards. Written by Frank McCourt (who won a Pulitzer for the heartbreaking memoir Angela's Ashes) and his brother Malachy McCourt (actor, politician and bestselling author of A Monk Swimming), Blaguards was first performed by the McCourt brothers in Pennsylvania.
In the Cinnabar production, directed by Sheri Lee Miller—with Peterson as musical director—actors Steven Abbott and Tim Kniffin play the celebrated Irish raconteurs as the ultimate survivors, two brothers who've found humor and joy in spite of the difficult childhood they've both described in eloquent detail in their books. Only in this one, it's mostly all funny.
"These are funny guys, guys who love life," says Peterson, "guys who found a lot of life all around them, even in the crushing poverty they grew up with. There are some stories in the show that are a bit heart-rending, but this play is about their journey from childhood to positions of success. It's not a down story, by any means. It's actually a very lively story.
"There are," he grins, "a lot of laughs in this one."
And plenty of music, too. Dozens of songs are interspersed between the various stories acted out by the energetic McCourts, each character playing several other characters in the course of telling their tales. All of them are songs that have meant something to the McCourts throughout their lives, from Irish tunes of their childhood, to novelty songs from their adopted country of America.
"It's got the song 'Limerick Is Beautiful,'" lists Peterson, "along with 'Barefoot Days' and 'Irish Rover.' Lots of tunes you'll recognize and some you won't. Some are these sort of interesting Tin Pan Alley tunes, like 'There's No One with Endurance Like the Man Who Sells Insurance.'"
In the original production, the McCourts sang to a recorded soundtrack. In the Cinnabar version, Kniffin and Abbott perform with a live band, the local trio Youkali, featuring Roxanne Oliva on accordion, Daniel Kahane on fiddle and Josh Fossgreen on bass.
"They are all phenomenal musicians," says Peterson, who plays guitar along with the band. "We're also borrowing some tunes from their repertoire to use as moments of interlude music, songs like 'Red Haired Boy' and 'Shebeg Shemore'—beautiful, evocative tunes that help us tell the story.
"And this," Peterson adds, "is a really good story."