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Irish eyes smiling on new musical

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Submitted photo The Ashland writing team of, from left, Michael J. Hume, Malcolm Hillgartner and Jahnna Beecham have written a new musical based on a Tomaseen Foley Irish Christmas tale. "Parcel From America" will premiere in Dublin, Ireland, in May.
A poster advertises a new musical, "Parcel From America," adapted from Tomaseen Foley's piece of the same name by Ashland's Malcolm Hillgartner, Jahnna Beecham and Michael J. Hume.
Kickstarter campaign will help Ashland writing team stage Dublin debut

The Ashland-based writing team of Jahnna Beecham, Malcolm Hillgartner and Michael J. Hume will premiere a new musical, “Parcel From America,” in Dublin, Ireland, this spring.

An adaptation of popular Irish storyteller Tomáseen Foley’s piece of the same name, it will be performed May 10-15 at the historic Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin’s oldest.

“We first heard Tom tell his beautiful Christmas story 20 years ago,” said writer/lyricist Beecham. “We’re thrilled that we have been able to expand it into a musical.”

Hillgartner, composer/lyricist, has been working on the music with Irish arranger Kevin Corcoran for three years. Staged readings of the musical were held in Dublin, Chicago, and last summer in Ashland.

“Kevin is one of the most sought-after session musicians in Ireland,” Hillgartner said. “His brilliant arrangements have lifted my songs beyond the traditional Irish idioms they were inspired by into something innovative and unique.”

Singer/songwriter Conor O’Brien’s album “Fever Dreams,” featuring Corcoran’s string arrangements and keyboard work, was nominated for Album of the Year at the 2021 Irish Music Awards.

A Kickstarter campaign has been launched to support mounting the project in Dublin. The goal is to raise $25,000 for expenses, with just over $15,000 having been raised to date. Deadline for Kickstarter contributions is 1 p.m. March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.

“If we don’t meet our goal, the writing team will pool their credit cards to make it happen,” Beecham said.

“The playwrights have pledged to donate all royalties from the play to the International Rescue Committee to help the people of Ukraine,” Hume said.

To donate, go to kickstarter.com and search for “Parcel From America.” Or go directly to its page at http://kck.st/3smEN81.

“Parcel From America” weaves a Christmas tale that takes place in a remote parish in West County, Limerick. The townsfolk eagerly await annual packages from emigrated family members now living across the ocean in America.

But for one lonely widow, a package will mean more than just gifts and money. It will mean she has not been forgotten by her only living relation, a son, run off to America to make his fortune.

During a simpler time when family was community, and community was the center of life, a young boy learns first hand that neighbor helping neighbor never means more than at Christmastime.

The Dublin production will have a five-piece band, including a fiddle, whistle, octave mandolin and bodhran, with Corcoran at the keyboards and music directing.

J.R. Sullivan, artistic director of Irish Theatre Chicago, will direct a cast of 11 Irish actors, many of whom U.S. viewers may have seen in “Game of Thrones” and other popular TV series.

Charlie Reid was cast for the production this week as the young Sean Kelly. Reid co-stars with Olivia Colman in the movie “Joyride,” which is scheduled to be released soon.

“We were lucky to catch this talented teen before he becomes an international star,” Beecham said.

“Parcel From America” is the fourth musical written by the trio. Beecham and Hume write the book for their projects, Hillgartner writes the songs, and all three create the lyrics.

Their first musical, “They Came From Way Out There,” premiered at Oregon Cabaret Theatre in 2004 and has since been produced by Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland and Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

The play is about members of the Paranormal Society who meet and reenact close encounters they’ve experienced with alien life.

“The Milwaukee production was such a hit, they asked us to write another show for them,” Hume said. The result, “Dog Park: The Musical,” has since played at the Oregon Cabaret and at other theaters around the country.

“They said, ‘give us five ideas and we’ll pick one,’” Beecham said. “Malcolm and I were making lists, and the next morning our doorbell rang and Michael was standing there with a cup of coffee. He said, ‘Dog Park, The Musical,’ and I screamed yes! We all three howled. And that’s how it began.

“Dog Park” follows five dogs on their “dating scene” adventures at the hippest dog park in town. Hume got the idea after seeing an ad in the paper that read, “Lovers with Leashes meet up at the dog park,” and imagined what the singles dating scene might look like from a dog’s point of view.

Since 2018 the team has been working simultaneously on “Parcel From America” and another musical, “Allie Kazan and the Magic Mansion,” which will open in 2023 as a co-production of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and Orlando Repertory Theatre.

“It was crazy working on a piece set in rural Ireland in the 1950s one day and then the next day switching to a Scooby-Doo-type musical about teens in a magic competition,” Hume said.

The three Ashland artists have had long careers in the theater and each wears many hats.

Hume is about to begin his 29th season as an actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“I won’t be able to go to Dublin for the premiere,” he said, “because I will be deep into rehearsals for ‘The Tempest’ at OSF, playing Gonzalo, wise counselor to the King of Naples. It will be my third go-round on the Enchanted Isle.”

Hume also directs Rogue Theater Company’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune,” which opened March 4 at Grizzly Peak Winery.

Beecham and Hillgartner, who are married, met as actors at OSF in the late 1970s.

Hillgartner is an award-winning audiobook narrator, with 275 titles to his credit.

Under the name Jahnna N. Malcolm, Beecham and Hillgartner write for juveniles and teens. Their series “The Jewel Kingdom” is in development by Scholastic Productions and Bron Studios as an animated series.

Beecham also co-authored the guidebook “Living with Dying,” with Hume’s wife, hospice social worker Katie Ortlip.

The pandemic has been a tough time for the performing arts. But this trio turned unexpected free time into a period of productive writing and composing.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.