‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’ in more ways than one  – ‘Love of Art’ or the ‘Art of Love’?

From what I’ve been told, it was a helluva post-show celebration Saturday night – and rightly so: twenty-five years of providing high-level drama and music to a Donegal, indeed nationwide, nay, international, audiences is well worth commemorating in style.

Led by its loyal leader and chairperson, Pluincead O’Fearraigh, the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group displayed its multi-faceted acting and singing talents at An Grianan before two enthusiastic audiences this weekend, with appreciation demonstrated in lively standing ovations.

Fortunately, I was able to attend the Friday evening performance, warning people on twitter (@HilleanSean and @worlditinerary) that they’d better hurry to buy tickets or they’d have to pay well over the odds on Donegal’s thriving theatrical black market.

A rousing ‘Oklahoma’ really stirred the audience to life. Photo by permission of LMDG.

I also found out that not only does the group support ‘love of art’ but also ‘the art of love,’ with several happy marriages resulting from – well, let’s just call it ‘performer get-togethers’ over the years, and leave it at that. No wonder the classic song ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’ from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was part of the group’s select 25th anniversary repertoire this weekend.

The group began its humble origins following the departure of the Letterkenny Vocational Players from the local drama scene in the late 1980s. Pluincead O’Fearraigh picked up the reins and formed a new group, with former members of the LVP joining him. From their debut ‘The Absent Minded Bridegroom’ in the Loreto Convent hall, the group entertained audiences with performances such as ‘Oklahoma’ (1992), ‘Calamity Jane’ (1993), ‘Juno and the Paycock’ (1993) ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (1994) and ‘The Field’ (1995), performing their musicals in St. Eunan’s College Hall and their plays in Loreto before the opening of An Grianán in 1999 and hosting the very first show there, a ‘Magic of the Musicals’ concert, in October.

Entering the Drama Festival Circuit in 1996, the group has won many group and individual awards, reaching the Confined All-Ireland finals in 1999 and 2000 with ‘Wedding Fever’ and ‘All the King’s Horses’ respectively, with Anthony Delap scooping the All-Ireland Best Supporting Actor accolade in 2000.

In 2012, it brought Ulster and All-Ireland Drama success to Letterkenny for the very first time with their immensely successful production of hit West End show, ‘The 39 Steps,’ with Elaine Gillespie, John Ruddy and Eoghan McGiolla Bhríghde each winning All-Ireland acting awards and Pluincead O’Fearraigh scooping the All-Ireland Best Director award.

In 2013, the group were the recipients of a Civic Reception by the Letterkenny Town Council in recognition of their enduring success.

Here’s what I thought of the group’s weekend performance.

Never have I witnessed such hustle-bustle and buzz of anticipation so long in advance of a show at Donegal’s An Grianan as I did yesterday (Friday) evening.

Pluincead O’Fearraigh Donegal, live shows in Donegal

John Ruddy, in character, sings ‘If I Were A Rich Man.’

With more than a half hour to go before curtain-up, the lobby was already choc-a-bloc and lines had already formed at reception, with two friendly ladies dealing with ticket-seekers as best they could. People walking, people in wheelchairs, in couples, in groups, all beaming lively seasonal goodwill.

The reason for the excitement: the opening night of a stupendous ‘grand variety’ style show celebrating the most memorable of performances by the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group since its inception a quarter of a century ago.

And the high level of anticipation was well-matched by the quality of the two-hour plus, multi-faceted performance on stage. Luckily, a second show takes place tonight (Saturday, 8pm) so if you don’t have a ticket grab one. So good is the show, however, if you don’t move fast enough, you may have to buy on the black market – at treble the price.

Chris Duddy tugged at heart-strings with his version of ‘Mr. Cellophane.’ Photo used with permission from LMDG

Some people think writing a review of a top-caliber show, whether it be music, theater or opera, is easy. And that writing about a bad show is hard. Not so, not always. To illustrate. One of the main challenges in writing a review of last night’s captivating music and drama group’s offering is that there were so many quite brilliant performances, a review could end up being merely a long shopping list of the good and the mighty. At the same time, it would be bereft of me not to mention at least some of the highlights.

But first an overall impression.

Aside from the overall holiday-like theatrical atmosphere, the on-stage performances – from the opening, and most appropriate, number, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business,’ the classic Irving Berlin 1946 song written for the musical’ Annie Get Your Gun,’ sung by Rodney McKeague, Ciara Gallagher and ensemble, to the heart-warming carols at the end, were so impressive – I felt at times wondering if I’d stepped into the West End or Broadway by mistake. When I say ‘performances,’ I mean singing, choreography, timing, dancing, costumes, musical support, acting and stage set-up and management.

After viewing on-screen during the interval the other highly-engrossing aspect of the evening – video clips from previous shows by the local music and drama group down through the years – from ‘Calendar Girls’ to ‘Sister Act,’ I definitely thought I had teleported to the Big Apple or London.

Letterkenny Music and Drama Group, live theater in Letterkenny

All aboard for ‘South Pacific’ and a singing ode to the beauty of women. Photo used with permission from LMDG

The evening’s quality entertainment wrung the full gamut of emotions from audience members, including my dear wife. At one moment, Columbia was laughing heartily at the ‘train-chase’ excerpt from the drama group’s All-Ireland award-winning adaption of John Buchan’s 1915 melodrama, ‘The 39 Steps,’ performed by Elaine Gillespie, Kieran Kelly, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhrighde and John Ruddy. Later, I noticed her brushing tears from her eyes at the poignancy of actor Iarla McGowan’s recitation of the 1914 World War One ‘No-Man’s Land’ scene when German and Allied soldiers exchanged gifts and pleasantries during an impromptu Christmas Day ceasefire, which was followed by a wonderful rendition of ‘White Christmas’ by the whole ensemble.

White Christmas Donegal, music in Donegal

Carols light up the theater atmosphere. Photo used with permission from LMDG

Here you’ll have to forgive me. I mentioned already an aversion to long shopping lists in a review but now find myself inclined to make one, though short not long. If I don’t, this review could turn into a thick book of praise. So, succinctly, other highlights included:

  • John Ruddy’s melodious rendition of ‘If I Were A Rich Man’ from ‘Fiddler On The Roof,’ complete with credible accent.
  • Catherine Gaffney, Aoibheann Diver and Andrea Emmet for their combination of captivating acting and singing in the song ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’ from the same musical.
  • Using only white gloves as an accessory, Chris Duddy’s heart-string pulling performance of ‘Mr. Cellophane’ from the musical ‘Chicago.’
  • The ensemble’s rousing ‘Oklahoma’ led by Martin Gallen, Rosaleen Connolly and Ali Logue.
Eavan Hennessey Donegal, Donegal singers

If Eva Perón had looked or sang anything like Eavan Hennessey Argentina would be the most admired nation on Planet Earth. Photo used with permission from LMDG

  • Riana Lynch’s goose-pimple-creating rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’
  • High-octane rock ‘n roll numbers led by Kieran Kelly and ‘Buddy Holly Lookalike’ James Coyle singing ‘Chantilly Lace,’ ‘Oh, Boy’ and ‘Johnny Be Good,’ with gyrating boogying accompaniment by talented dancers.
  • Blonde bombshell Eavan Hennessey, the personification of elegance, singing a soaring version of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ from the musical ‘Evita’ created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. If Eva Perón had looked anything like Eavan, I’d definitely have voted for her.
  • Paddy McTeague and ensemble singing so passionately ‘Take Me To Paradise’ from ‘The Celtic Story,’ especially impressive as the last time Paddy performed with the group was 10 years ago.
  • Dressed in black, Katie Porter’s touching rendition of ‘Maybe This Time’ from ‘Cabaret.
Paddy McTeague Donegal, The Celtic Story

The team may be out of Europe but Paddy McTeague and ensemble still sang passionately ‘Take Me To Paradise’ from ‘The Celtic Story.’ Photo used with permission from LMDG

It was also wonderful to see how some of fellow neighbors from Gaoth Dobhair played such key roles in the overall evening, including, of course, award-winning maestro and group chairperson, Pluincéad Ó Fearraigh, who deserves high praise for his sterling work over the last several decades in creating such consistently high-quality shows – 22 plays and 23 musicals in total, in Donegal and elsewhere.

And a lady I termed in an inscription in my newly-released suspense novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ (linking Donegal to America) as ‘the nightingale of west Donegal,’ Jacqui Sharkey, who sang beautifully, ‘Tell Me It’s Not True,’ from the musical, ‘Blood Brothers.’

Kieran Kelly, James Coyle, Donegal actors

Led by Kieran Kelly and Buddy Holly lookalike James Coyle, lively music aka ‘Chantilly Lace,’ ‘Oh, Boy’ and ‘Johnny Be Good’ rocked An Grianan. Photo used with permission from LMDG

Of course, none of the songs would have sounded so good if it had not been for the impressive musical backing from The Band, led by Denise Roper and Pat Campbell.

A deserved standing ovation greeted the whole cast at the finale and there was also one for those members of the music and drama group who sadly passed away during the intervening 25 years and whose images were show on the on-stage screen.

The Letterkenny Music and Drama Group’s next production for the festival circuit is American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’ Readers, wish them well.

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