"Music Mad," performed Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through June 28 at the charming and terrific-on-every-level Chief O'Neill's Irish Pub & Restaurant (3471 N. Elston Ave.), is based on the life of the man for whom the bar/restaurant is named.
Francis O'Neill left Ireland at 16 in 1865, joined the Chicago Police Department in 1873 and was its chief from 1901-1905.
Though I hear tell he was a fine chief, this show is about his lifelong desire to preserve and catalog Irish music, which manifested in the largest collection of Irish music ever printed (long title too: "O'Neill's Music of Ireland: Eighteen Hundred and Fifty Melodies, Airs, Jigs, Reels, Hornpipes, Long Dances, Marches, Etc., Many of which are now Published for the First Time. Collected from All Available Sources") and many other books.
The man behind the show is attorney Adam Whiteman, and this is how it came to be: "I started a record label (Big Chicago) a decade ago, and one of the releases was "Hidden Treasures: Irish Music in Chicago." In putting that together I deeply explored the scene. I was amazed at the depth of talent and the beauty of the music. One of the people I came across was Brendan McKinney, who plays the Uilleann pipes" and who, along with wife Siobhan, opened Chief O'Neill's in 1999.
"I asked him, 'Who is Chief O'Neill?' He told me and that was that. The story was so compelling it had to be told."
In order to do so, Whiteman, a man of great enthusiasm and persistence, reached out to members of the Irish music community.
Says the brilliant singer/actress Kathy Cowan: "I got a funky e-mail from this guy Adam Whiteman, and (I'd) never heard of this guy. All it said was, 'I need your services.' Once I learned what he was up to, I was in."
He also recruited musicians Laurence Nugent, Jim DeWan (also music director), Farley Masterton and Joe O'Regan; actors Brett Tewell (who plays O'Neill), Mike O'Brien, John Moran, Tim O'Sullivan, Paul Brennan, Katie Mae Cochran and teenager Deirdre Kozicki. The show is directed by Stefan Brun, co-founder and co-artistic director of Prop Thtr, just north of the bar on Elston Avenue.
The play is in the form of an interview with O'Neill.
"That allows scenes to come to life with other actors and in song," says Cowan. "I play O'Neill's wife, and that is great fun, as was learning what a lovely human being he was."
The musical contains four original songs by Whiteman and any number of traditional Irish tunes.
Says DeWan, "So much of this music would have died out if it had not been for O'Neill."
Adds Whiteman, "He was a police officer and he did his duty. He was sworn to serve and protect — and he did. He protected this music for all time."
Hear from authors John Aranza, Brian Gruley and Julie Hyzy, among others, on "The Sunday Papers With Rick Kogan," 6:30-9 a.m. Sunday on WGN-AM 720.
"Chicago Live!" is hosted by Kogan and takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday at the UP Comedy Club, 230 W. North Ave., with, among many guests, actress Phylicia Rashad and TV pioneer Tom Weinberg. To see highlights and get tickets, go to chicagolive.com
Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune
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