An Irish musical? Improbable, indeed. While it has offered up many a great straight play over the last century, Ireland has not managed to create a viable infrastructure for musical theater. Defying the odds, Rough Magic Theater Company premiered this fully staged musical satire last autumn at the Dublin Theater Festival, and it’s being rewarded with an unprecedented revival at the country’s national theater. It reveals, in Arthur Riordan, a book writer and lyricist of prodigious cleverness and skill, and has production values to die for and a cast with impressive and unexpected singing abilities. But a mediocre score keeps “Improbable Frequency” from really soaring.
Riordan’s choice of subject matter is original and potent: Ireland’s supposed neutrality during World War II. The truth of this claimed position has been challenged ever since, and Riordan jumps straight into the fray by portraying the country as a hotbed of covert activity on both Allied and Axis sides. His central character is mild-mannered crossword puzzle enthusiast Tristram Faraday, who is co-opted by MI5 to investigate an Irish radio program that’s weirdly able to predict weather patterns and seems linked to Nazi sympathizers.
Tristram discovers a Dublin disturbingly untouched by horrors happening elsewhere in Europe: “Is it smugness or insurgency/That makes them say ‘Emergency’?/I feel it lacks the urgency/of World War Two,” sing a group of British consular officials. Riordan is toying with some still-touchy shibboleths here, given Ireland’s continued claims of neutrality in the current Iraq conflict despite serving as a refueling stop for U.S. war planes heading for the Persian Gulf.
Things get even edgier in “Tooral-aye-ay for the IRA,” during which banners with clover-leaf swastikas unfurl down the Abbey’s walls — this in the same week the annual Sinn Fein party conference met in Dublin amidst a spate of Republican-on-Republican murders.
In treating this topical material, Riordan wisely keeps the tone light, drawing the audience through an engagingly daft thriller plot via a series of groan-inducing puns and a number of appealing characterizations, many of them based on real-life individuals: Irish humorist Myles na gCopaleen (a.k.a. Flann O’Brien), British poet John Betjeman and Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger, portrayed here as an uber-mad scientist who — ludicrously — has invented a device that alters the probability of events via radio waves.
Despite Faraday’s continual explanatory narration, however, exactly what this all adds up to remains unclear. That would matter less if the music provided adequate entertainment along the way.
Bell Helicopter, a London-based duo well-regarded for their theater sound design and film music, have not risen to the challenge of a virtually sung-through musical score. Though they ambitiously attempt a pastiche of musical styles, from Weimar cabaret to rebel ballad to music hall, the music is neither distinguished nor memorable, contributing to a sense that the evening is continually vamping toward a never-achieved payoff.
Director Lynne Parker has made two wonderful discoveries: Rory Nolan sings beautifully and is hilarious in two plum character roles, while Lisa Lambe reveals an extraordinarily powerful singing voice but is not given a single decent number to show it off.
Three seasoned and serious stage actors — Declan Conlon, Peter Hanly, and Darragh Kelly — throw themselves into the general silliness with engaging conviction, and just about pull off the singing bits. But Cathy White is done no favors in songs that don’t accommodate her limited range, and she’s not called on to innovate her now well-worn femme fatale persona.
Rough Magic has produced the show brilliantly, from the cafe-style setup to the stylish onstage band to complex and excellently executed stagecraft — the climactic second-act set shift actually got a round of applause on opening night. But it says a lot that this, and not any new musical material, actually constitutes this show’s eleventh-hour number, and the show limps to its overdue and unsatisfying non-conclusion.
What this production achieves is remarkable, and its presence on the Abbey stage is truly refreshing. It’s just frustrating that, in the hands of a more skilled composer, this could have been a truly great musical.