Time again to laugh it up in ‘A Little Bit Of Ireland’

The Massachusetts Harp Ensemble, led by Judy Ross, performs in “A Little Bit Of Ireland.”  	Reagle Music Theatre / Herb Philpott photoThe Massachusetts Harp Ensemble, led by Judy Ross, performs in “A Little Bit Of Ireland.” Reagle Music Theatre / Herb Philpott photo

With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, it’s time for Reagle Music Theatre’s annual celebration, “A Little Bit Of Ireland.”  The 18th edition of the heartfelt homage to all things Irish plays three performances on March 12 and 13 at Robinson Theater in Waltham.  Conceived and directed by Bob Eagle, Reagle’s producing artistic director, the production features a cast of 100 with music, dance, and a touch of blarney, all backed by a live orchestra.

Maintaining the show’s long standing tradition, the company includes Broadway couple Sarah Pfisterer (“Phantom of the Opera,” “Show Boat”) and Rick Hilsabeck (“Phantom of the Opera,” “Billy Elliot”);  classic step-dancing from award-winning Liam Harney and members of the Harney Academy of Irish Dance in Walpole; extraordinary harpist Judy Ross, leading an ensemble of 12 harpists ranging in age from seven to 70; Reagle’s own Irish Tenors, offering lullabies and romantic ballads in four-part harmony;  spirited Irish classics from Reagle’s renowned Adult Choir; and the impish charm and irreverent stories of comedian and Reagle favorite, Harold “Jerry” Walker.

Under the creative eye of Bob Eagle, award-winning Reagle has been bringing Broadway-quality musical theater to the Greater Boston area for 46 seasons.  “A Little Bit Of Ireland” dates back to the late 90s when Eagle saw an opportunity to add a bit of Irish entertainment to his annual lineup. 

I recently spoke with Jerry about the metamorphosis of the show as well as his own history, which includes more than 40 productions at Reagle, from “Guys & Dolls” and “42nd Street” to “My Fair Lady.”  

Originally from Newton and a longtime resident of Waltham, Walker studied at UMass Amherst and Boston University and taught Advanced Placement History at Waltham High for many years.

Q. What do you remember about the beginnings of the Irish revue. How did it all start?
A. At that time, “Riverdance” was really big . . . Liam Harney, who’s in the show, was doing his own show called “Celtic Fusion,” and Bob recognized that there was a need for a show that tapped into what was the rage at the time, but also tapped into the roots of a lot of people in Greater Boston and the greater New England area.

Q. From the beginning, the show has showcased some stunning artists, hasn’t it?
A. Bob is sharp enough to know who to go to to get different kinds of things.  For music, he went to [the late] Larry Reynolds and Comhaltas.  For dance he went to Liam.  For fiddle playing, he said to Larry, “Who have you got?” And Larry said, “I’ve got this guy at BC, his name is Seamus Connolly – Seamus is a world renowned fiddle player.”  So that’s how it started.

Q. And you handled the comedy?
A. Bob said, “I’d like to you create a character.”  Originally in his mind he thought maybe it would be like Hal Roach, that type of comedian . . . But I wanted to develop my own character.  So I kind of thought of my mother.  I kind of thought of my uncles . . . I wrote some of my own stories and developed this character . . . He’s a knowing comedian.  He understands.  He’s not a fool . . . almost like an all-seeing humorist.  The audience sometimes knows what’s coming, they can kind of figure it out.  But they can’t figure out how he’s going to get there.

Q. Do I understand your Mom was quite an entertainer herself?
A. My mother’s family was from Cork . . . My mother, from my earliest recollection, had the ability to dance and sing. She was a wonderful piano player and had a tremendous wit . . . She started off in local shows. She actually did vaudeville and did some tours. She also had an affinity to do accents, which I picked up.

Q. Did you ever perform with her?
A. I was on stage with my Mum when I was 8 years old . . . She had all these accents down and she would tell all these stories . . . She was a triple threat on stage . . . I really kind of modeled myself, inspirationally, after her. I think of her a great deal when I’m out on stage.

Q. She had a sly sense of humor?
A. I can remember her coming in, and my Dad would be sitting at the end of the table.  He’d say, “What’s new, Kay? Anything happen today?”  And she’d say, “Oh, Kate Dailey died.”  “Oh,” he’d say, “I’m sorry.” And he‘d look with a knowing glance around the table at us because he knew something was coming. And he’d say, “Well what did she die of?”  And she’d say, “Well, I really don’t know. But it was nothing serious.”

Q. Audiences count on the traditions of this show.  How much do you vary your material each year?
A. I know I have to include some stories just about every year. I have to. There’s new material, but if I don’t tell that particular story, someone’s going to be greatly disappointed.

Q. In the past, Sarah Pfisterer has told me that when she’s not on stage, she loves to stand in the wings and watch you work.  Whom do you look forward to seeing in the show?
A. I feel the same way about her . . . I look forward to the fiddle players -- the jigs and the reels.  It brings back so much. I had an aunt, her name was Minnie . . . She had this old phonograph in the corner, all these Irish records. There was no such thing, as far as she was concerned, of any recording ever made in the United States.  They all had to come from Ireland.  She was from Mayo and she would listen to this music.  I remember the reels and the gigs and listening to them over at her house. . . . I also look for the beautiful tenors and sopranos, followed closely by the dancers. I just love the sound on stage.

Q. Your mother would be quite proud of your stage work.
A. Toward the end of her life – this is not a sad story – I said, “Mum, of all the roles that I’ve done, which one did you like best?”  She looked up and had the little half-Irish lilt and she says to me, “I liked when you played St. Joseph.”  And I said, “Mum, I didn’t say anything.”  And she said, “That’s the whole idea.”

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
Reagle Music Theatre’s “A Little Bit Of Ireland,” March 12 & 13, Robinson Theater, 617 Lexington Street, Waltham.  Tickets: reaglemusictheatre.com or 781-891-5600.