Theatre: Donnybrook starts off the season!

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Jenny Powers, James Barbour; @Carol Rosegg

How It’s New York: Irish Rep is one of the greatest Off-Broadway Theatres in town.
How It’s Irish: This is a musical version of the film The Quiet Man, which defines an idealized, imaginary Ireland for many Americans.

An earlier version of this review was first published in Irish Examiner USA, Tuesday, Feb. 19.

 

Some theatricalized versions of popular movies leave you itching to just go home and rent the flick, where the actors are better, the jokes funnier.
But fans of the March season perennial 1952 movie The Quiet Man, which was explored so fully in the MOMA exhibit The Quiet Man Revisited two years ago, can rest easy.

Donnybrook, the 1961 musical by Johnny Burke and bookwriter Robert E. McEnroe based on the movie, is different enough from The Quiet Man that those who can recite the lines by heart (“And who taught you to be playing patty-fingers in the Holy Water!”) will have a great time.
And those who’ve never seen it will find a sweet story to watch.

The show runs at Irish Repertory Theatre  through the end of March.
Director Charlotte Moore, Irish Rep’s artistic director, has done a terrific job at staging material intended for a broad landscape for the theatre’s small space.
The clever set by James Noone, with a folding wall structure that suggests pub or cottage on the outside, and opens to reveal different building interiors, combined with the bright green and blue hills on the walls, brings us into an artificial and cheery world, not unlike John Ford’s idealization of a happy Ireland.

The story is the same as it is in the film: boxer Sean Enright (James Barbour), from “Pittsburgh, America,” comes home to Innisfree, Ireland, where he was born He wants to buy his old cottage, called White O’Morn, and live a quiet life. He falls quickly for Mary Kate Danaher, (Jenny Powers) a fiery red-head, but is blocked in his courtship by her bullying brother Will (Ted Koch).

@Carol Rosegg

Will has it in his head to marry a wealthy widow, Kathy Carey (Kathy Fitzgerald) and have her property adjoin his. Mary Kate and Sean marry, but when Will finds out that he has been tricked by Mickeen Flynn (Samuel Cohen) into believing the widow will have him, he refuses to give his sister her dowry.

After a lot of cultural misunderstanding, there’s the big donnybrook, or knock-down drag’em out fight, of the title.

We open a couple singing the lovely theme to the movie, “Innisfree.” One of the smarter things Moore does is to use the music that is so well known from the film, including “Wild Colonial Boy.” As for the show’s music: let’s face it, one of the overlooked treasures of American musical theatre, Donnybrook is not. City Center’s Encores won’t be doing it anytime soon.


At the top of the show, Mary Kate has a jovial song, “Sez I,” about her refusal to settle for just anybody, but despite the Irish constructions, rhythmically and thematically it’s almost exactly like Laurie’s “Many a New Day” in Oklahoma. Choreographer Barry McNabb’s dance accompaniment here by the farmworkers is hokey, as is the fakey Irish jigging.

Kathy Fitzgerald, Samuel Cohen (@Carol Rosegg)

On the other hand, some of the numbers are terrific, particularly anything that the widow is in. Her song “Sad Was the Day,” about the death of her uptight husband that left her with time and money, is particularly good. “Why did he die, diddy di, diddy di” – hee. Her two duets with Flynn, “I Wouldn’t Bet One Penny,” and “Dee-lightful Is the Word,” are also good fun, and McNabb’s choreography charms.

There are some nice ballads too, particularly Mary Kate’s “It Could Happen to You,” about suddenly falling in love. That one is not from the original score, but was written by Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen.

The musical tends to put ballad after ballad together which weakens their impact. The singing is wonderfully not miked, and altogether pleasing, and there is a sweet four-piece orchestra.
McEnroe’s departures from the movie (both are based on Maurice Walsh’s short story, which originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post) add a jolt to the proceedings. Cutting the Protestant priest Reverand Playfair for the musical was smart, as songs take away from narrative time.

Jenny Powers, James Barbour; @Carol Rosegg

Revealing that Sean won’t fight because he killed a man in America, and letting Mary Kate know it early on, does not work however – it makes her insistence that he fight because “in Ireland every man’s a warrior” more petulant than proud.

And while it’s a pure joy to watch the widow and Flynn, it does leave Will with zero redemptive qualities. I half expected him to turn into Malvolio and cry “a pox upon you all!” when he’s beaten in a fair fight, but the musical is too good-natured to go there.

If you resent The Quiet Man for its portrayal of lovable peasant stereotypes, you might wonder at how the two comic women, beautifully played by Terry Donnelly and Barbara Marineau, drink and carouse in the pub, with the priest, played by David Sitler, who’s a bit of a lad.

Moore does the best she can with the extended scene in which Sean drags Mary Kate back from the train station which leads to the big fight, but it just wasn’t made for the stage. And I miss the old lady politely offering Sean a stick to bate the lovely lady with.  I know, not politically correct, and probably wasn’t even in 1952, which is why it’s funny.

Jenny Powers, @Carol Rosegg

Jenny Powers sparkles as the spirited and passionate Mary Kate, and her lovely soprano sends the songs home. James Barbour’s Sean (played by Most Happy Fella’s Art Lund on Broadway) feels more sullen than quiet, though. He never radiated much warmth towards Mary Kate, despite a warm baritone. Patrick Cummings, who plays Gavin, the tenor who sings “Innisfree” at the top, would have been a more interesting choice, I think, and a complete visual departure from the John Wayne type.

Kathy Fitzgerald steals the show entirely as Kathy Carey, hamming it up and sniffing like Miss Piggy when she feels insulted. She’s beautifully matched in a nuanced yet hilarious, portrayal of Flynn by Samuel Cohen. Caught in a lie, Flynn says “I’ve said what I’ve said.” Committing that to memory now. And Sitler, as the priest who’s also a narrator, ably leads us through the story.
As the brutish brother Ted Koch was so good I wished he had more to do (Philip Bosco played the role on Broadway!).

Overall, despite its flaws, Donnybrook is engaging and entertaining, and a fun way to start off the Irish “season.”

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