“Gangs of New York” may have helped to revive the memory of Five Points, the notorious 19th-century slum in Lower Manhattan, but no one probably considered it the stuff of song and dance — until Larry Kirwan, the novelist, playwright and, not incidentally, leader of the rock band Black 47. Now at the Cell Theater as part of the 1st Irish Theater Festival, Mr. Kirwan’s rousing “Hard Times: An American Musical” examines the clashes among nativists, Irish immigrants and free blacks, ingeniously using the life and works of Stephen Foster,America’s first great songwriter, to tell the tale.
Under Kira Simring’s sure-handed direction, “Hard Times” bursts with vitality: the Cell, an intimate space, becomes the saloon, burlap draped along the walls, a tattered flag hanging. The choreography, by Joe Barros, morphs Irish step-dancing into something close to tap. And the show’s band of five men, led by Andrew Smithson, feel like characters themselves, joining in the revelry when the pace quickens.
By the end of the evening, the audience is up, cheering and stamping. In “Hard Times,” Mr. Kirwan has not only delivered a knockout entertainment, he’s done a public service, reacquainting us with the Foster songbook and the striving, teeming America for which it was written. read more