Triumphant celebratory evening at Letterkenny’s An Grianan theatre

It’s always immense fun meeting highly creative people.

I know that’s saying the obvious.

But sometimes we overlook the obvious.

So it’s good to remember.

For without them, society loses its very soul.

Pluincéad Ó Fearraigh, a teacher from the Donegal coastal region of Gaoth Dobhair, now chairperson of the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group (LMDG), is one such person.

So is the excellent actor, Eoghan MacGiolla Bhrighde, also from Gaoth Dobhair (is the overriding sense of creativity in that particular region in the air, or the water?)

Their efforts make life for hard-working, theatre-lovers like Letterkenny-based Anne and Simon Smith, former technician-cum-union leader and well-respected professor of nursing at the University of Ulster respectively, all the more enjoyable.

So here’s to creative people, both on and off the stage.

Here’s my tribute that was published in a recent edition of the ‘Donegal News’ on the latest creative event to emerge from the so-called ‘Forgotten County’ (who needs Dublin anyway, especially when creative people establish the Independent Republic of Donegal).

Fine singing, complex choreography, comedy skits, theatre, screen presentations, colourful costumes, skilful lighting, not forgetting the terrific orchestra – was there anything missing from the kaleidoscope of on-off-stage talent celebrating in grand style the 20th anniversary of An Grianán?

Not anything I noticed.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say if last weekend’s extravaganza wasn’t West End/Broadway quality it was certainly not far off it. And some acts by far surpassed it. And I say this with some degree of certitude as I’ve been to, and reviewed many, London and New York performances.

It’s no wonder, Pluincéad Ó Fearraigh, chairperson of the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group (LMDG), founded in 1991, was so content afterwards sitting among his hardworking cast in the theatre lobby enjoying a well-deserved toast to the show’s success.

An Grianan anniversary, Donegal theatre, Letterkenny Music and Drama Society

Pluincéad Ó Fearraigh enjoys a post-show success with members of of the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group (LMDG).

“I was delighted with the way the gala concert went,” he said. “The audience reaction every night was fantastic and made all the hard work very worthwhile. Everyone – cast and production team – have worked tirelessly since the beginning of September to make sure it was a concert to remember and worthy of celebrating 20 years of An Grianán being opened.”

He continued, “We were privileged to be the first group to perform in An Grianán when it opened on 16 October 1999 and delighted be given the opportunity to be part of its 20th anniversary celebrations this year. This was our 38th production in the theatre during those twenty years and we look forward to many more.”

The LMDG cast and crew of more than 40 people, plus the other acts, from towns Donegal-wide including Milford, Ballybofey, Gweedore and Letterkenny, and others outside the county, including Derry, Sligo and Strabane, put on a three-hour show that had audiences mesmerised, with many saying it far overshadowed the visiting Galway-based Druid Theatre which performed for the 10th anniversary.

The diverse musical repertoire stretched from naughty songs such as ‘How I Got The Calling’ from ‘Sister Act’ sung by ‘nuns’ in habits to the sexy, sensual ‘Cell Block Tango,’ with singers dressed in skimpy outfits, to the inspiring – as if that wasn’t inspiring enough – ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from ‘Les Misérables.” There was also an extract from a play by Brian Friel, dynamic steps by children and teenagers from Alison Quigley’s School of Irish Dancing and comedy skits adapted from ‘Life Of Brian,’ ‘Monty Python’ and F.U.N.E.X. from the TV series, ‘The Two Ronnies.’

Among the happy show-goers were theatre lovers, Letterkenny couple, Anne and Simon Smith. “It was great night of entertainment,” said the former. “There were so many memorable performances from musical theatre shows that we all know so well. And so many talented performers from Donegal. A fantastic way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the theatre in Letterkenny. Well done to all for all the hard work in putting on such a great show.”

Theatre in Donegal, An Grianan theatre, Gweedore artists

Letterkenny-based theatre lovers, Simona and Anne Smith, enjoy an outing at An Grianan, helping celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Added Simon, “While there was lots of singing and dancing from the great musical theatre shows, I particularly loved the drama – a bit of Brian Friel, a bit of Monty Python. The famous argument sketch was hilarious. The celebratory show reminded me of the many great local drama productions enjoyed over the years, one in particular being ‘The 39 Steps.’ ”

Added Patricia McBride, the theatre’s director, “The Gala Concert marking the theatre’s 20th anniversary was a testament to the rich talent we have in Donegal. The performers royally entertained the audience. The atmosphere was very positive and the feeling of goodwill towards the theatre was palpable. It was a wonderful occasion.”

What's On Donegal, Live shows in Letterkenny

Enjoying convivial company at An Grianan Letterkenny.

Gaoth Dobhair born actor, Eoghan MacGiolla Bhrighde, who starred in several comedy sketches and was also a member of the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group that won the RTE All-Ireland Drama Festival with its production of ‘The 39 Steps,’ said he was “delighted” to be chosen to take part in the celebration. “it was great to be involved in such an occasion, especially among so many talented performers,” he said. “While some members of the music and drama group have changed, over the years their spirit still lives on in the magic of the musicals and other stage performances of all kinds.”

‘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.