Theater Review: Phil Coulter in ‘The Songs I Love So Well’
A professional air and caring touch
By Judd Hollander
Phil Coulter at the piano. (Carol Rosegg)
NEW YORK—The holidays are welcomed in joyful fashion with The Songs I Love So Well, offering a funny, tender, and at times, breathtaking performance by Phil Coulter at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
An Irish artist, Coulter has an international reputation as a songwriter, composer, arranger, music producer, recording artist, and storyteller. He looks back on some of his favorite, most memorable, and seasonally appropriate tunes for this engagement, performing them all on a grand piano with a professional air and caring touch.
"Coulter … has a husky vocal tone aged by time and experience".
Offering a mixture of instrumental and vocal selections, Coulter makes for a genial host, noting how after he’s played such venues as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, he’s finally made it to the Irish Rep.
And after working in those much larger spaces, he’s clearly enjoying appearing at a more intimate one. The songs and sounds are so perfectly balanced, it feels as if one is attending a private concert with Coulter performing directly for each member of the audience.
The evening starts off with Coulter’s rendition of the classic Irish song “Danny Boy,” the music hanging quietly in the air; it is followed by the soulful “Lament for the Wild Geese” and the touching “The Old Man,” all interspersed with some enjoyable verbal banter.
Other highlights include the gentle “In The Bleak Midwinter,” Coulter’s favorite Christmas carol; the rousing “Ireland’s Call,” which he composed for the rugby team of Ireland; the haunting folk ballad “Scorn Not His Simplicity,” a song he wrote after his son was born; and the rather jaunty “Coultergeist.”
Coulter tells an amusing story regarding “Coultergeist’s” creation. It is one of many tales and anecdotes he works into the show, all expressed with the ease of one used to making speeches sound conversational. These stories often told appear completely fresh and new.
Coulter doesn’t have a classic pop voice per se, rather he has a husky vocal tone aged by time and experience and thus is able to project nuances and feelings into every word he sings or speaks.
In regard to the latter, Coulter also proves his worth with several spellbinding poetry narrations, including his haunting and image-filled delivery of “The Man From God Knows Where.”
In an interesting coincidence, Coulter, who grew up in the town of Derry in Northern Ireland and is quite familiar with the troubles between the Catholics and Protestants and British and Irish, is performing this show on the set of “The Freedom of The City.”
The most recent production at the Irish Rep., “The Freedom of The City,” which will return after a December hiatus, tells a fictional story based on actual events. The story follows three Irish citizens caught up in a situation beyond their control after taking part in a peaceful protest disrupted by the British.
This background provides a rather appropriate setting for Coulter’s recollections from that era, many of which are crystallized with the nostalgic and bittersweet song “The Town I Loved So Well,” showing just what happens to a picturesque locale when touched by war.
Mostly a solo performance, Coulter is joined in the middle of Act 2 by Geraldine Branagan, his wife and a musical star in her own right. Branagan delivers a wonderful rendition of “The Water is Wide” and also joins her husband for several other numbers.
Coulter, who knows the classic trick of always leaving his audience wanting more, winds things up with a very enjoyable piano medley saluting the 1960s and then presents a rollicking rendition of the 1920s tune “Coney Island Washboard,” sung in the style of Jimmy Durante.
The set by Charlie Corcoran, basically consisting of the piano and some Christmas decorations, in addition to the set mentioned above, works fine. The use of a projection screen to allow the audience to see Coulter’s hands moving in time to some of the pieces he performs is a nice touch.
Sound design by Zachary Williamson augments Coulter’s music.
A virtual master on the ivories, Coulter presents heartwarming entertainment for lovers of good music, all things Irish, classical piano, and the Christmas season.
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.