Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Irene
WVLO Musical Theatre Company

Also see Eddie's reviews of Each and Every Thing, Freedomland, Arcadia and Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters, Patrick's review of Cymbeline and Richard's review of Elton John: The Sing-Along


Having the rare opportunity to see a musical like Irene, with a score by Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy, is a gift to anyone who has any interest in the history of the Great American Musical or anyone who just wants an evening of unabashed and silly fun with a few iconic songs. With a book by James Montgomery, the 1919 musical took Broadway by storm and retained for two decades the longest-run record (675 performances). There were soon productions in London, seventeen touring companies, a 1923 revival, and movies (both silent and talking/singing). Decades later, a greatly revised version (adapted book by Hugh Wheeler and Joseph Stein), created to debut the young movie star Debbie Reynolds, ran into pre-Broadway disasters of all sorts and universal critical pooh-poohing. However, it found just the right blessing when President Nixon declared at a desperate, final, D.C. tryout that Irene was a "definite hit." And a hit Debbie and cast were on Broadway, complete with a long run and Tony nominations and awards.

Fast-forward to Saratoga, California, where WVLO Musical Theatre Company now revives with full spunk and a large cast (and equally large orchestra) this rarely seen gem. Irene O'Dare lives with her jolly, yet protective mother Geraldine and works in their piano shop on the 1919 Irish immigrant part of 9th Avenue, New York. She ventures to the mansion of the well-to-do Marshall family to tune a piano, quickly catching the eye (and soon the heart) of son Donald S. Marshall III. She quickly gets caught up in a wild scheme dreamed up by Donald's wacky cousin Ozzie to introduce to society the fashions of a suspicious and foppish Madame Lucy (a curiously so-named man) as the latest couturier from Paris. As with any good, early American musical, silly shenanigans, the ups and downs of love, and surprises galore ensure a shallow, predictable, but altogether fun and engaging story—leading of course to the happiest of endings for all.

WVLO's production of Irene is marked with memorable, highly applaud-able moments as well as ones that do not quite make the mark. Fortunately and overall, there are enough of the former to make the evening's outing worth the effort.

As the heroine Irene, red-haired Janice Engelgau lights up the stage with perkiness, strong-headed determination, and fearless pursuit of dreams. Her Irene is bits of Mary Poppins, Annie Oakley, and novitiate Maria all wrapped into one. In voice, Ms. Engelgau often shines with clarity and appeal, as when she declares "The World Must Be Bigger than an Avenue" or sings beautifully "Alice Blue Gown." Unfortunately, in one of the musical's most-remembered, oft-recorded icons (by the likes of Judy, Perry, Bing, and even Alice Cooper), Ms. Engelgau disappoints in "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows." Her extended notes too often waver and go flat and, coupled with hideous spotlighting where she turns shades of faded purple and pink, the desired show-stopper just does not happen. But, when delivery of the goods really matters, as in the climactic and equally still-famous "You Made Me Love You," she is magnificently convincing in Irene's part of the duet with her beloved Donald, leaving us with an overall positive impression.

The other real star of the evening is Terri L. Weitze as Mrs. O'Dare. Every minute she is before us is one not to be missed. The triple-chinned, quite zaftig but totally agile-in-step Mrs. O'Dare excels in her heavy Irish brogue, her deep and delicious voice of song, and her ability to dance a wee little jig. We as audience are left wanting more of her and wishing additional lines and more songs had been written for Mama O'Dare.

As neighborhood girls Helen and Jane, who get a big chance to become fashion models before their rich clientele, Charlynn Knighton and Samantha Stidham become better and better throughout the evening. A beginning scene in which Madame Lucy is teaching the two girls and Irene to walk properly as models should be slap-stick hilarious; but the effect is stilted, silly stepping across stage that barely rouses a yawn much less the desired laughter. However, later appearances of the two totally hit the mark and they particularly shine every time they appear in the second act in numbers they share with others, "We're Getting Away with It" and "Great Lover Tango." The two begin to take on a sense of a seasoned comic duo that draws laughs just by showing up.

Disappointing is the role that won George S. Irving a Tony for the 1973 production. Steve Anthony's Madame Lucy is flamboyant but not altogether the foppish artiste the part demands. He sometimes is funny and other times, not. And he, too, suffers flat-tones in his moment to shine in "They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me." Richard Portune fares much better as Donald Marshall III in both song and character. While at times he could loosen up just a bit more his somewhat stilted demeanor, he often is good-to-really-good as Donald persuades Irene to be his fashion manager, as he gingerly pursues her in love, and as he is both surprised and exasperated by her stubbornness and angry streaks. He also rises to the occasion to deliver with Irene his half of the excellent "You Make Me Love You."

High kudos goes to choreographer Jennifer Gorgulho and the dozen members of the ensemble. Throughout, their numbers are delivered with precision, high energy, and sheer fun. A high-stepping, vigorous series of Irish dance moves performed with Irene in "An Irish Girl" is soon surprisingly over-shadowed by the wild, yet totally coordinated gyrations of hands, heads, feet, and entire bodies in the later "The Rivera Rage." The ensemble's singing is also full of nice melody and harmony but sometimes is not quite as optimally strong in total belting sound.

Joseph Kelly's large orchestra is certainly admirable in this age when most companies are often moving toward using the fewest instruments possible to save in needed budget, but in the Saratoga Civic Theatre venue largeness becomes a detriment. Because the orchestra sits on the same level as the audience and is only a few feet away from the front row, the sound often overpowers the miked singers, and the orchestra's heads and instruments hide the foot movements of the excellent choreography. Coupled with brass and reeds that are too often shrill when in fortissimo mode, the orchestra sometimes becomes more disadvantage than advantage for this production.

In the tradition of New York's Encores! series or San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon, WVLO has bravely stepped forward to showcase a musical now largely ignored by most stages. Enough wonderful moments are created in the resulting Irene to warrant a trip to Saratoga for anyone who has a hankering for an evening of song, dance, and humor of an era now past.

Produced by WVLO Musical Theatre Company, Irene continues through July 25, 2015, at the Saratoga Civic Theatre, 13777 Fruitvale Civic Theatre, Saratoga, CA. Tickets are available at www.wvlo.org or by calling the 24/7 voicemail 408-268-3777 or the 24/7 live box office 800-838-3006.

- Eddie Reynolds


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