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The Butcher Boy

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 1, 2022

Nicholas Barasch and Cast
Photo by Carol Rosegg
The Butcher Boy, the darkly comic musical opening tonight at Irish Repertory Theatre, where it was previously workshopped, is still a bit rough around the edges. But it has all the earmarks of a future cult favorite, and it certainly makes for an impressive debut by its creator, 19-year-old Asher Muldoon, who is responsible for the music, the lyrics, and the book, adapted from Patrick McCabe's novel of the same title.

The show features a terrific Nicholas Barasch ("Orpheus" in the first national tour of Hadestown) in the lead role of Francie Brady, the "butcher boy" of the title. His is a coming-of-age story about a lad who has no interest in coming of age, not when he sees how growing up affects those around him. He has seized on a brief moment in his life when things are perfectly fine, at least in the ways a 12-year-old boy figures they ought to be. He's got his pal Joe (Christian Strange) by his side, his Ma (Andrea Lynn Green) offering unconditional love, comic books and treats from the sweet shop, and a sense of self-worth that he will never have again. If only that nasty stuck-up Mrs. Nugent (Michele Ragusa) and her dandified and best-friend-stealing son Phillip (Daniel Marconi, increasingly a scene stealer) would disappear from his life. Oh, and there is the matter of those pesky piggies who keep showing up with some regularity, even if only Francie can see them and hear their uncivilized advice.

You might think of Francie as a blend of "Tom Jones" from the Henry Fielding novel or the Tony Richardson-helmed film of that title, and "Alex," the lead character in Anthony Burgess's "A Clockwork Orange" and the movie directed by Stanley Kubrick. Like Tom Jones, Francie knows how to ooze charm and frequently directly addresses the audience as he escorts us through his various adventures. Like Alex, however, he is also a dangerous sociopath.

Act I of The Butcher Boy is a long setup for the creepy second act, which opens with the show's best sequence, depicting a period of Francie's life when he is confined to a psychiatric institution. It is perfectly staged to give everything a wonderfully mad, surrealistic perspective. Overall, however, the staging is hit and miss, and would benefit from more creative design, including better use of the stage's central images of a huge TV screen and comic books, all meant to give us a sense of time, the 1960s, with flashes of "The Lone Ranger," "The Twilight Zone," and the Cuban Missile Crisis that fill Francie's head. Right now, those images seem to speak less to Francie than to the audience; we need to see him getting lost in them in order to strengthen the idea of his slide into mental illness. We also need to see more of what it is that pushes Francie into that state, possibly some Grand Guignol moments to take things over the edge. Ultimately, we need to feel both sorry for the inevitability of his downfall and deeply disturbed by its outcome. Under Ciarán O'Reilly's still-too-loose direction, we're not there yet, and the journey of two and a half hours is too long a ride. This is not Sweeney Todd.

Musically, Asher Muldoon has produced an eclectic original score, much of it designed to push the narrative forward. It is nicely balanced out with some lovely ballads, Irish folk tunes, and a couple of cleverly inserted music hall-styled numbers, whose uplifting tone belies the reality of the unfolding events. Outside of the slower ballads, however, it can be challenging to pick up the lyrics through the Irish-accented singing.

All told, The Butcher Boy does seem to be a work that is still in progress, but it comes very near to being ready for its close up. Tightened for time and sharpened for impact, this show could easily become a mainstay of regional and college theater productions.

The Butcher Boy
Through September 11, 2022
Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, 132 West 22nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: