If tap dancing were really as easy as Shonn Wiley makes it look in Mud Donahue & Son, the world would undoubtedly be a happier and louder place. But the actor’s assured lightness at the center of this featherweight new musical at the 45th Street Theatre, where it’s playing as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, is something special.
For young men - and far too many audiences - who value flash above technique, it’s an object lesson in what great theatre dancing should be: a lark, a game you’re positive you could play if only someone handed you a rule sheet. For the show that contains it, it’s a glimmering spark burning through a dispiriting darkness. Librettist-lyricist Jeff Hochhauser and composer-lyricist Bob Johnston only give Wiley two real chances to strut his considerable stuff, once comedically and once dramatically, but they’re enough to bestow legitimate theatrical weight on the tired tale they’ve resurrected here.
As vaudeville hoofer Jack Donahue, who runs away from his home and his show biz-hating mother, Mud (Karen Murphy), Wiley first dons his dancing shoes in “The Shadow,” joining his footlight-created partner to sing about the joys of, well, dancing. The number is the act that successfully leads him from the family home in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and a lifetime of drudgery working with his father at the shipyards, and brings him love, sex, respect, and realization on the circuit.
It also leads him into the requisite trouble, with drink, which sends him swirling into his second specialty, “The Tap Drunk,” in which he sweeps his competition off the bill with his forceful feet and, okay, maybe an uppercut or two. The scene, which begins as a light-hearted competition, and ends with a flurry of life-or-death violence, allows Wiley the opportunity to beat himself up, presenting each new blow on his agile body as though he really received a sucker punch.
It’s as fine an expression (and, sadly, one of the few) of the storytelling powers of dance that’s been seen on NYMF - or on most other New York stages - this year. The scene is a veritable tour de force from both Wiley and director-choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett, who transform one man and two feet into an engaging, evening-long inebriated escapade.
It’s also the only time Mud Donahue & Son offers up something even temporarily unexpected. Based on letters from the real Jack Donahue, the rest of the show is little more than an epistolary bore carried out between him and his mother, who wants no more out of life than Jack to stop boozing a la his deadbeat father and, even more importantly, give up his dancing for a real profession. Of course, her fears might be allayed if only she could see him, but if that happened before the final scene, it would be a mighty short show.
As it is, it’s not a long one - it runs just under two hours - but with no new ideas and no songs of particular distinctiveness about anything other than Jack’s light-footed proclivities, it’s nonetheless a tough slog. Most of the numbers have the proper feel for the 1910 setting, bouncing between player-piano pop and Irish restiveness, but they sit uneasily amid Mud and Jack’s letters and never contribute anything new to our understanding of the mother-son relationship the show claims as its heart and soul. Murphy’s performance, though superbly sung, is a one-note rendering of the typically fussy, disapproving Irish mother that, in the seen-it-all world of 2007 and the cliché-riddled show surrounding it, needs all the help it can get.
Wiley, though, brings his disarming croon of a voice and just enough affable grace to Jack to overcome the role’s shortcomings as the age-old talented dreamer who just needs to prove himself. Plus, his tapping skills believably buoy Jack’s belief in himself, helping you understand how and why this man became a vaudeville and Broadway star in the early part of the last century. Whether talking, singing, or especially dancing, Wiley convinces you that the story of Jack Donahue is one worth hearing. He’s the only person involved with Mud Donahue & Son that does.
Venue: 45th Street Theater, 354 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, 1st Floor