by: Marcina Zaccaria
Musical theater flair, Irish folk stories, and classic vaudeville are all seen in “God’s Country,” a new musical presented at The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater during the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Breathtaking costumes designed by Claire Aquila evoke the rough and tumble year of 1871.  Not certain if he is Irish or British, James, an intellectual, meets a number of unseemly characters including Rival Tom Killian and Gang Leader Solomon McCreaddy .  Articulate without being snide, James, played by the appealing Nick Cartell, is drawn toward New York City’s gritty Five Points area, and sees his way through pub brawls, jail cells, and a tragic job on the construction site of the Brooklyn Bridge before finding redemption in love.
A ship’s anchor serves a focal point for the ensemble cast.  Smart scenic design includes movable suitcases, old fashioned chairs, barrels, and crates to stand on.  As the set transforms, the wheels of progress are moved from Five Points to East Side of Manhattan.  A back drop changes from deep azure to violet.  Lights and darks fade throughout the play, and stark sidelights and soft gels bring out the drama and romance of the story.
The relationship between James and Tom Killian (Chuck Bradley) becomes more defined throughout the play.  After Tom Killian introduces James to New York’s Irish community, James agrees to teach Tom to read and gives him food and shelter.  Soon, James founds New York’s first newspaper targeting the city’s Irish immigrants.  In his work as a journalist, he meets a young temperance worker, Kathleen Kahill, and they fall in love.
Kathleen (Lulu Lloyd) is both sharp and shrewd in preaching the dignified way to be, navigating her way through tough talk, bar scenes, and personal crisis before accepting love and the possibility of marriage at the end of the play.  Previously appearing in Pure Country at Playwrights Horizons, and Judy in 9 to 5, Lulu Lloyd is fierce and passionate.  Supporting cast members strike the balance between cheery and cheeky.  In the musical number, “Miss Should,” they effortlessly glide across the stage to Irish folk rhythms, written by Composer Elaine Chelton.  Their dances are articulate and fine, and the music is incredibly uplifting without being transcendental.
The fundamental struggle between the men in the face of the corruption of Tammany Hall is central to the storyline.  Instead of writing about the scandal and corruption of Boss Tweed, Killian publishes a scathing account of James, saying that he is not Irish but English.  This gets James ousted from Five Points and into a jail cell.  The compact Chuck Bradley, who plays Killian, packs a wallop.  Tough guy Solomon McCreedy, played by the clever Jody Cook, brings out the forcefulness, sly humor and quick wit of the era.
Direction by Craig J. George is even-paced and incredibly attentive to performances styles of the time period.  Previous productions include Taming of the Shrew at the Duke Theater on 42ndStreet and Lighter at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.  His direction is never labored, tedious, or uninspiring, making the production appealing to a wide theater-going audience.
So much of the play focuses on what it means to be English and what it means to be Irish.  The main character’s journey includes a fundamental search for truth and identity.  In “God’s Country,” where they are both blessed and cursed, the story asks what is the truth in promises?  Where do you find trust and commitment?  How does a national identity change over the times, and how does keeping your ties with your friends intersect with values like love, honor, or independence?
The central thematic material isn’t trite, unexplored, or off the mark.  As the characters struggle to defend their honor within the context of their surroundings, they are constantly refining their relationships and the space that is left in their heart.  When crossing, what is the reason to leave for a new land?  As they wave the flag towards unity, they find that there is strength in numbers, and in the dignity of saying no.
Near the end of the play, the main character finally finds his birth mother, Marion Doyle, played by Victoria Huston-Elem.  Her voice is textured and her firm message about how she had to let James go is truly heartfelt.
Hopeful and expressive, “God’s Country” is playing until Wednesday, July 24th at The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center.  Tickets are available by calling (212) 352-3101 or by visiting the New York Musical Theatre Festival website