Nearly a thousand people gathered in Ventura County two weeks ago to watch a traveling minstrel show.
No one onstage or in the gallery would have called it that. There was no blackface, no slapstick comedy set on an antebellum Southern plantation.
This being the 21st century, our pop burlesque looks elsewhere for source material. Luckily for us, if not for them, the Irish seem ever available to enchant American audiences with their olde tyme song and dance.
That's the business model, at least, behind Celtic Woman, a distressingly popular all-Irish vocal troupe that played a recent two-night run at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.
Anyone who has channel-surfed past PBS lately probably has been exposed to Celtic Woman. Since 2005 the network has kept the group's taped concert specials in seriously heavy rotation. The act consists of four well-scrubbed lasses, all in their 20s and 30s, performing a jumble of Irish pub standards, Lite FM covers and original ballads Céline Dion would reject as insufficiently edgy.
The staging combines the atmospherics of a Renaissance Faire and a Vegas lounge act. There are faux castle walls, outrageous amounts of stage smoke, color-gelled spotlights sweeping antically and — sure, why not? — a bagpiper.
All this was cooked by David Downes, an Irish composer and pianist whose past crimes include serving as musical director of Riverdance. In the grand tradition of Lucky Charms cereal and step-dancing buffoon Michael Flatley, Riverdance showed how the raw ingredients of Irish folk culture could be tossed into the showbiz Cuisinart, sweetened and repackaged beyond all recognition and peddled to American consumers. It was a product engineered to monetize middlebrow Europhilism, and it succeeded ruthlessly.
After the Riverdance phenomenon ran dry in the early aughts, Downes set about designing a next-gen delivery vehicle for Irish kitsch. He assembled five young women, four vocalists and a fiddler, who'd never performed together, and handed down marching orders: Let's put on a show.
Their first concert, taped in Dublin, appeared on PBS in March 2005. Within weeks, the companion CD — stocked with easy-listening chestnuts “Danny Boy,” “Ave Maria” and “Orinoco Flow” — hit No. 1 on Billboard's World Music chart, where insanely it would spend 68 weeks. Just like that, Celtic Woman was in the house.
The market for this sort of thing is apparently massive. Celtic Woman has sold more than a million concert tickets and more than 5 million albums. The group has undergone minor lineup changes along the way, but all of its CDs have topped the World Music chart, and its latest, Songs From the Heart, reached No. 9 on the all-genre Billboard 200.
Artistically, the music is wretched. Commercially, it is genius.
In Celtic Woman, Downes has forged a pop act that appeals to middle-aged, Acura-driving suburbanites — to people, in other words, who aren't big into illegal downloads but who'll readily pay $50 and more to attend a concert. If you're destined to be a niche act and you don't mind being made fun of by the cool kids, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better niche.
Exactly why Celtic Woman is so popular is tricky to diagnose. Sure, the songs are competently performed. Throughout the two-hour set in Thousand Oaks, the vocalists were polished and tuneful. But it's nothing you couldn't get from an above-average community choir, and the material, larded with cheap sentiment and generic uplift, is dreadful.
The visuals don't do the ladies any favors, either. Their dowdy, floor-length gowns seemingly were available in two colors only: oatmeal and dishwater. Aside from the overcaffeinated scampering of fiddler Máiréad Nesbitt, choreography is limited to a few chaste hip swivels.
For purportedly grown-up entertainment, the show is weirdly desexualized and free of all humor or irony. It's like someone put Ned Flanders in charge of production design.
What Celtic Woman sells isn't music but Ireland. Not Ireland as an actual place, the one on Planet Earth with 12 percent unemployment and endemic alcoholism, but Ireland as an idea: a twee fantasyland home to leprechauns, rolling green pastures and demure young maidens with lilting brogues.
An “escape from modernity” is how Tok Thompson, an anthropologist at USC and scholar of Celtic folklore, characterizes the idiom. Celtic Woman, he observes, plays on “the romantic promise of glimpses of the Celtic Otherworld, an imagined prerational mind-set that has fascinated the Anglophone world for hundreds of years.”
The performers of Celtic Woman are envoys from that land of make-believe. They're winsome and modest, and they hit their notes. They're pretty but nonthreatening. It's far easier to picture them knitting a wool turtleneck than stealing your boyfriend.
Yes, they're pandering to stereotypes and charging for the pleasure, but judging from the standing ovation given by the Thousand Oaks crowd, no one seems to mind that much. The danger, one supposes, is that fans of Celtic Woman forego actual experience of the outside world in favor of this thin simulacrum.
Speaking by phone the day after the show, Lisa Kelly, one of the group's founding members, remarked that Celtic Woman hardly ever performs in Ireland, which makes sense. There aren't, after all, any Olive Gardens in Italy.