Wilson Bridges, Brian Sears, and Peyton Royal
in The Bowery Boys
(© Peter Coombs)
Wilson Bridges, Brian Sears, and Peyton Royal
in The Bowery Boys
(© Peter Coombs)
In a career of more than 30 years, the prolific David H. Bell has compiled an enviable resume in musical theater. But the ultimate success -- a smash Broadway or West End musical -- which has heretofore evaded him might change with The Bowery Boys, now receiving its world premiere at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

Featuring book, lyrics and direction by Bell and music by Jeremy Cohen, this rollicking and colorful show jumps off from American history and myth, and boasts an engaging ensemble cast, led by the picture-prefect Brian Sears and Morgan Weed, all of whom are bursting with the ideal energy for Matt Raftery's exuberant and athletic choreography. Equally important, the show's intent is to please rather than to impress, and the difference from some of Bell's previous works is refreshing.

The show is inspired by the once-popular dime novels of Horatio Alger, Jr. and the songs of George M. Cohan as it tells the story of poor adolescent, orphaned, immigrant boot-black Dick Hudson (Sears), who makes good on the mean streets of late-19th Century New York City. He does so by organizing other boot-blacks against Tammany Hall corruption, saving British heiress Mary (Weed) from dastardly machinations, inventing tap dancing, and landing an upwardly-mobile job at a big new store, thanks to Mr. Macy himself.

Borrowing heavily from the structure of melodrama, Bell has created a spirited tale with rapidly ascending action, bold if primitive sketches of the good and bad characters, liberal use of coincidence, a heart-rendering death, and a denouement in which truth and justice are triumphant. (He even adds a little bit of crossdressing.) So what if it's all a bit familiar and the outcome is predictable?

The show's original score brims with barrelhouse brio as Cohen borrows discreetly from period styles such as the two-step, Irish jigs and sentimental ballads. David Siegel's flavorful orchestrations lend the up-tempo numbers an irresistible drive. There's a Gilbert & Sullivan style patter song, too, for Dick Hudson and the baddies, entitled "Clothes that Make the Man." While the show doesn't completely leave Cohan behind, interpolating his well-known "Mary" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to decent-enough effect, it might actually be better if Cohen and Bell created two original numbers to serve those songs' purposes.

The cast couldn't be better. Chicago veterans such as Bernie Yvon, Susan Moniz, Roger Mueller and Catherine Lord take to the period style like ducks to water, and there is stand-out work from supporting players Lesley Bevan (wicked and two-faced Nanny Mae) and rubbery Jeff Dumas (as Kid Twist, her baddie bro). But the show's heart is the dazzling ensemble of 12 young men and boys who play Dick Hudson's buddies, filling the show with high kicks and joy.

Nancy Missimi's luscious costumes suggest the 1870s, with women in slightly-bustled, high-necked velvet gowns and boys in high-waisted striped trousers with balloon-sleeved plaid shirts and cloth caps; but the book refers to President Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) and to Times Square, which wasn't built until 1904. If Bell and Cohen can clean up these pesky details, add another strong tune for Mary, and replace a couple of weak songs, The Bowery Boys should be good to go anywhere the traditional American spirit still is alive.