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Hitting the high notes

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 22nd February, 2012 5:25pm

t was a case of once bitten forever smitten for Cornafulla's Mike Keena. After getting involved with an Athlone Musical Society production in 1998 at the behest of a friend he's never left and now for the third year in a row he sits as society chairperson as the group look to their next show "All Shook Up".

Mike is the second in a family of eight born to Cornafulla native Pat and his Oughterard, Co Galway born wife Maura. Though music has "probably always been in the background", Mike says it's far from musicals he was reared. "Football would have gotten priority in my younger days," he says, "when Clann na nGael was going well".

In 1998 however he was inveigled by a friend to join an Athlone Musical Society cast that was badly in need of chorus members. Agreeing to help the oldest musical society in the country out "for the laugh", he said he promptly "got addicted" as soon as he got involved in that year's production of "Crazy For You". Though on stage only in perhaps eight of the shows in the intervening years, Mike has done his time too helping out off-stage at society shows. In 2009 he took the position of chairperson on the musical society's committee, a role he holds still. Though to many it could be seen as a thankless job, Mike says he's happy to put the shoulder to the wheel as "you only get out of it what you put into it".

Football hasn't totally been forgotten however. Though no longer a player, Mike is a selector at U16 and Intermediate level for his local club Clann na nGael and thinks of himself as "still big into GAA".

Speaking to the Westmeath Independent on Monday last he also spoke of how much he enjoyed last weekend's local derby between St Brigid's and Garrycastle. Having been a member of a club that lost out themselves at the latter stages of All-Irelands, he says he knows how St Brigid's are feeling now. However at the same time he's wishing Garrycastle the very best of luck as they go forward.

Mike is also wishing the cast of Athlone Musical Society luck with "All Shook Up", as the cast of approximately 50 take to the stage in the Dean Crowe Theatre in Athlone for an eight night run on March 3.

"We went to see it last year in Galway," he says. "All the music is Elvis Presley. It's hilarious, colourful, funny and a great show for families."

The show will play nightly at 8pm from March 3 to March 10 except for Sunday, March 4 when they put on a matinee performance at 5pm. This week the show's cast will rehearse five times, voluntarily putting in an average of 30 hours over and above their normal working day. A limited number of tickets are available to the public for the traditional sponsor and patron opening night. Tickets for the show cost €18 for adults and €12 for students, children and pensioners, but a novel idea sees all Monday night tickets priced at just €11. The group hopes to play to a capacity audience of approximately 450 each show, and Mike is hoping now Athlone residents will make an effort to attend. "People should come out," he says. "It's not an expensive night out."

Mike's reasons for putting bums on seats on show nights are threefold. Not only is it a great night out for locals, he also says a packed house makes for more energy onstage and also helps the musical society foot the bill of the €70,000 to €80,000 it takes to put on a musical including costumes, musical directors, musicians, choreographers, venue hire and more. Sponsorship, one of the show's main financial supports, is slowing Mike says. "It's just the times that we're in at the moment," he says. "Businesses are collapsing around us. It's a shame to see a lot of the businesses that had sponsored us down through the years gone out of business over the last couple of years. Hopefully there's light at the end of the tunnel around the corner."

The show will act as relief from the "doom and gloom" however, he says, especially with good audiences. "The energy that comes from the audience will bounce back off the stage from the cast," he says of the play that comes in at just under two hours with an interval in the middle.

A fourth reason for going to see the show, Mike says, is to scope out what joining a musical society might involve. "We're always looking for new members," he says. The group got a great influx of members this year, including a sizeable number of men which are usually hard come by in the world of musicals. Mike says joining is a great idea though. "It's a great pastime and a great way to meet new people," he says.

"I've made lots of friends since I joined the society that I would have never met before." These friends extend to other musical and drama groups in the region, with members from groups in Offaly and Galway to name just two planning trips to see the upcoming Athlone Musical Society show. "If you do it once you'll get hooked," he maintains.

"Like myself - I came in for the craic but had a ball. You get a bit of stick, a bit of banter from the lads, but in fairness when they go see the shows they say they're great." Furthermore he says if being on stage is not your thing there might still be a job for you front-of-house, working with props, helping with hair and make-up or costumes and more. Whoever you are, Mike says there's a place waiting for you in the society that counts as members everything from "a butcher to a blocklayer to truck drivers to teachers".

Mike is now so involved with musicals you could almost argue that he's breeding new members. Mike's wife Anita was pregnant with their 18-month-old daughter Lauren during the society's run of "The Pirates of Penzance" and he says he's inclined to believe those who say babies can hear what's going on while still in the womb. "She's totally addicted to musicals," he laughs. "I bring her into the hall and all she wants to do is get up on stage."

Though little Lauren isn't quite old enough to join the cast, she will be in the audience watching her mother on stage in the chorus and helping her father out in his role front-of-house.

Mike, who works as a butcher in SuperValu in Monksland, is now encouraging every else to join her and support the society by buying a show ticket. Tickets are available from the Dean Crowe Theatre every day from 9.30am until 3.30pm or online at (where ticket price includes the €1 booking fee that usually applies). A box office is also situated in Golden Island shopping centre and will be manned each day from 10.30am until 5.30pm.

The society will be honoured with a council reception tomorrow (Thursday) evening to mark their 110th anniversary.