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Peg O' My Heart

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Good songs and a good book are good for musicals, but aren't enough - the two elements must work together to tell a story neither can tell alone. The ideal way to accomplish this is, and has always been, a score created for a book and a book created for the songs. Obvious? Not really - how many musicals today succeed, though they ignore this simple musical theatre axiom? In most of those cases, however, it's the score that's already familiar, most likely composed of pre-existing hits.

Charlotte Moore has a different type of show running at the Irish Repertory Theatre right now - she's added songs to an established play to create something she's calling a musical. Peg O' My Heart, based on J. Hartley Manners's breezy 1912 class comedy of the same name that shot Laurette Taylor to stardom, is not a bad show. Much of it is enchanting, the songs (which Moore wrote) are generally lilting and attractive, and the enterprise as a whole is a light, charming evening at the theatre.

But though the production, which Moore also directed, has much going for it, a cohesive musical it most certainly is not. Moore's method of making the play a musical involves little more than plopping the songs down in the middle of Manners's pre-existing text. The end result is, unsurprisingly, one where the characters generally sing about things that have already been established through the dialogue. This begs the question: Why does Peg O' My Heart need the songs?

Moore does not adequately answer that question. The fine group of actors she's assembled, nice designs (James Morgan's set, Mary Jo Dondlinger's lights, and David Toser's costumes), and Moore's own soft, respectful directing touch suggests Peg O' My Heart is capable of standing alone without the songs. There's little special about the story, which finds the young Irish woman Peg arriving from New York to help save the English Chichester family from financial destitution. She doesn't know, though, that the estranged Chichester relative instructed she not be told of her role, despite the family's being granted a healthy stipend for helping her become a proper lady.

Predictable perhaps, but more than adequate in terms of both story and comedy. Kathleen Early is bright and spunky as Peg, Melissa Hart is a hoot as the matriarch of the Chichester family, James A. Stephens brings a lovable stuffiness to the butler Jarvis, while J. Kennedy and Rita Harvey bring subdued, passionate, and very English appropriateness to Peg's paramour Jerry and her staunch protestor of a cousin.

The other performers, while all fine, tend to fall into the trap Moore has laid with the songs - those with peripheral (or less intrinsic) plot connections seem unbalanced by the music. Mrs. Chichester's son (Jody Madaras) has a nice song about work (or lack of it), and Jonathan Hadley's character sings a nice song to Harvey's character before disappearing for most of the show. But no character ever needs to sing. Peg doesn't need to sing a song called "Home" to tell us she's homesick, the trepidation she and Jerry feel about romance is evident in the dialogue and subtext without needing to be set to music (and one of the show's most banal lyrics), and so on.

More frustrating still is that many of the songs are lovely - a recording of Moore's music, particularly with the strong musical direction and piano playing Eddie Guttman provides (two others accompany him with cello and violin), would be highly agreeable. The show's overture alone is a beautiful, sweeping composition and some second act incidental music ("Assembly Hall Waltz") is attractive and catchy on its own.

But every song lifts out of Peg O' My Heart equally well, and that sinks it as a musical. It doesn't need its songs, and, were it not for the willingness of Moore and her cast to give it all they've got, the show (and Manners) would most likely want none of them. Peg O' My Heart deserves to be seen and enjoyed and the songs Moore has composed deserved to be heard and appreciated. They just don't need to be put together.

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Irish Repertory Theatre
Peg O' My Heart
Through July 6
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 727-2737