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Donnybrook!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Donnybrook!
James Barbour and Jenny Powers.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The title of the 1961 musical Donnybrook! may be lyrical, but it doesn’t refer to a person or place magical enough to croon about. No, it’s a lilting nugget of Irish slang for something considerably more mundane: what songwriter Johnny Burke refers to as “a big, wild, knock-down, dragout / Rippin’, tearin’, swingin’, swearin’ fight.” And it’s difficult to think of a better way to describe either the show itself or Charlotte Moore’s new revival of it at the Irish Repertory Theatre, as this venture is constantly at war with itself and never able to reach much more than a stalemate.

A few problems come baked into the concept. The 1952 John Ford film on which Donnybrook! is based, The Quiet Man, about an Irish-American boxer who kills a man during a bout, returns to his family’s homeland, and falls in love with he’s unwilling to defend because he’s sworn off fighting, is rich in cross-cultural flavor and conflict. But as it’s obsessed with minuscule manners of honor and reputation that only human frailties build up towering heights — a significant plot involves the treatment of the woman’s dowry, and its symbolism of her independence and worthiness — it possesses little of the size and sweep most properties need if they’re going to sing.

So in adapting their show, Burke and his librettist, Robert E. McEnroe, had to broaden their scope to fashion something that wouldn’t get lost on a big Broadway stage. Looking beyond the fighter, the girl, and her overprotective brother’s interest in the well-being of the tradition she represents, they also built up the roles of the spunky village businesswoman Kathy Carey, her dalliances (real and otherwise) with not just the brother but the local matchmaker, and let various members of the community sound off on what it all meant to them. The final show ran only two months and, despite a spirited cast recording, has all but faded into obscurity.

As she did with her production of another forgotten musical last year, New Girl in Town, Moore has taken major steps to address these problems and ultimately compounded the existing stumbles. The show has been stripped down to a running time of an hour and 50 minutes, not remotely enough for exploring the characters psychologically. Large chunks of the score have been jettisoned and replaced with traditional Irish tunes and two unrelated songs that Burke wrote with Jimmy Van Heusen (“When Is Sometime?” and “But Beautiful”). And names and scenes have been rejiggered to bring them more in line with the original movie. (No librettist is credited with the changes.)

One can understand and sympathize with the desire to make a more intimate “chamber” piece out of a fairly big show, especially one with such a lovely and largely unknown score. And, as Moore proved with Finian’s Rainbow in 2004 and Meet Me in St. Louis in 2006, it’s a gambit that’s capable of paying notable, if limited, dividends. But those productions worked because in part because they were based on better sources and in part because they were downsized with scalpels rather than chainsaws. The surgery that’s been effected here dilutes and obscures the central emotions, and forces too much dead air into a musical that needs all the life it can get.

Donnybrook!
Kathy Fitzgerald and Samuel Cohen.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The result is a lurching hybrid that trades on surface-level geniality, but isn’t a satisfying evening, let alone one that will please fans of either the musical or the film. The designs are predictably downscale as well, but handsome — the sets are by James Noone, the costumes by Linda Fisher and Leon Dobrowski, and the lights by Brian Nason — but the clever revolving unit set employed here can’t make up for a show that doesn’t move at all. Moore might have been better off commissioning (or perhaps writing herself) a new stage version of the movie that would take fewer liberties with the story and not introduce so many additional shrinking pains.

Moore and her musical director, John Bell, have, however, gotten one thing undeniably right: the singing. As the fighter, Sean Enright, James Barbour brings his luscious baritone to full bear; and as his object of affection, Mary Kate Danaher, Jenny Powers is in firm command of both her belt and its more legit extension. Barbour sounds both dark and yearning, his treatment of Sean’s big first-act solo “I Have My Own Way” a shivering explosion of subdued passions, and Powers delights with both the defiant “Sez I” and the discovering “He Makes Me Feel I’m Lovely.” In their duets (“But Beautiful” chief among them), their voices blend seamlessly into a single throbbing heart that summons the essence of theatrical romance. Kathy Fitzgerald, as Kathy Carey, injects plenty of saucy bite into her roof-raisers, “Sad Was the Day” and “I Wouldn’t Bet One Penny” (which she sings with Samuel Cohen, who’s winning as the matchmaker).

The performers’ acting throughout is less sure — particularly Powers, who fails to sell Mary Kate’s multiple changes of heart, and Barbour, who’s a bit stiff to convince as a supple brawler now overcome with guilt — but it’s tough to blame them given the stitched-together script they’re working from. Some of Donnybrook!’s charms are occasionally still evident when the music starts, but when the title song has the ensemble longing for an event “Where ears get uprooted / And droop like a drape / And shinbones are booted / Out of shape,” it’s difficult to not wish you’d experience from the show itself some of the same punch and kick.


Donnybrook!
Through March 31
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.irishrep.org