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A Stage Musical About Belfast’s Punk Oasis

Of all the streets to open a record store, one nicknamed Bomb Alley might not have been optimal. Then again this was Belfast in 1977, when the nationalistic, sectarian violence known as the Troubles made retail perilous pretty much everywhere.

The situation did not deter Terri Hooley, who welcomed warring Protestants and Catholics to the shop he had optimistically called Good Vibrations.

“It was like a little oasis in a sea of madness,” Hooley, 74, said in a recent video conversation from Belfast.

The story of a lone man bridging warring communities is the kind of feel-good tale you can easily imagine as a movie, and lo and behold, it became one: “Good Vibrations” (2012), starring Richard Dormer (“Game of Thrones,” “Fortitude”) as Hooley. Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson then adapted their own screenplay into a stage musical for Belfast’s Lyric Theater, whose most recent production of the show is running at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan until July 16.

The show, in which members of the cast take turns playing in the onstage band, follows the odyssey of Hooley (played by Glen Wallace) as he started the shop then a label that released early singles by the Undertones and the Outcasts. It also portrays the toll his obsession took on his marriage to the poet Ruth Carr (Jayne Wisener).

“It actually helps you understand what Northern Ireland is now, what Northern Ireland had been,” the musical’s director, Des Kennedy, said. “It’s a real snapshot of that conflict without being about the conflict.”

Hooley discovered the power of music at a young age. “My history starts in 1965 in the Maritime Hotel with Van Morrison and Them,” he said, mentioning one of the biggest stars to ever come out of Northern Ireland. “The ’60s were very colorful for me. Then the Troubles came, and the 1970s were black and white, and horrific.”

His solution was to create a place that would welcome all. “Terri is a true radical,” Patterson said via video from Belfast. “He really believes in the power of transformation, about betterment, about enjoyment, about living to your full potential.”

Hooley, a fan of Hank Williams and the Shangri-Las, was at first confounded by punk, but he quickly embraced the scene, which was blowing up in Belfast just as it was in London or New York.

The movement, however, had a different resonance in Northern Ireland.

“So much of the emphasis then was on what you couldn’t do,” Carberry said of Belfast in a joint chat with Patterson. “You can’t go to that school, you can’t live on that street, you can’t support that football team, you can’t have that friend, you can’t go out with that person — it was all about narrowing options.

“Punk music,” he continued, “was about opening up options: Expand your record collection, expand your group of friends and ultimately expand how you look at the world.”

Eventually, Hooley decided to expand beyond the store. Remembering great Northern Irish bands in the 1960s who had never made it to the studio, he didn’t want the new generation to be similarly erased.

So he started the Good Vibrations label to help preserve the legacy of bands like the Outcasts, Rudi, Protex and most notably the Undertones, who were based 70 miles away in Derry. A couple of the best scenes in “Good Vibrations” actually revolve around the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks,” which was so clearly an instant classic that the taste-making BBC DJ John Peel played it twice in a row during a 1978 broadcast.

Like many of the Northern Irish punk songs, “Teenage Kicks” celebrated the headiness of being young, rather than spewing out bile: Those kids didn’t have to sing about aggression — they were living it.

“Across the years, people were trying to avoid talking about politics in Northern Ireland,” said the show’s music director, Katie Richardson, who is 34. “Young people were like, ‘We’re sick of this, we want to talk about love, we want to talk about the positive things.’ For me and my generation of musicians, it was the same: Nobody wanted to talk about the Troubles.”

Not that love was doing all that great in Hooley’s own home: His passion for music came at a cost to his relationship with Ruth. “The night that Terri’s first daughter was born, he wasn’t at the hospital; he was at a Siouxsie Sioux gig in Belfast, hanging out backstage,” Kennedy said. The show does find a bit more room for Ruth as a poet, and for the couple’s friends Dave and Marilyn Hyndman (Darren Franklin and Cat Barter).

As Northern Ireland recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles, Carberry noted that the commemorations largely focused on the leaders at the negotiation table, to the detriment of the groups and individuals who had tried so hard to make a difference on a smaller scale.

“In a way, ‘Good Vibrations’ is a celebration of those people,” Carberry said. “This is a story about ordinary people who tried to live a different way, and tried to help others live a different way.”

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