The residents of Inishfree, Ireland in 1951 are certainly a curious bunch. A woman doesn't consider herself truly married until she has her dowry in hand; old ladies drink whiskey like it's tea, and nothing will make them happier than witnessing a good old-fashioned "donnybrook" – a knock-down, drag-out fistfight – even one that involves a local resident and a former prizefighter.
If these sound like your kind of people, head on down to the Irish Repertory Theatre, where a "revisal" of the short-lived 1961 Broadway musical, Donnybrook!, is being given a spirited production by artistic director Charlotte Moore. But as engaging as these folks can be, especially in the hands of a talented cast led by James Barbour and Jenny Powers, there's no denying that this musical adaptation of the beloved 1952 film The Quiet Man is far from a knockout.
The set-up is simple enough. Mysterious Irish-born American boxer Sean Enright (Barbour) no sooner arrives in his childhood home of Inishfree then he meets -- and falls in love with -- a fiery redhead named Mary Kate Danaher (Powers), who rather quickly returns his affections despite her protestations. But Mary Kate's hot-headed brother, Will (Ted Koch), takes an instant dislike to Sean and refuses his consent to their union.
The situation gets resolved with local matchmaker Mikeen Flynn (Samuel Cohen) tricks Will – who can hardly deal with one woman in his household -- into believing wealthy widow Kathy Carey (Kathy Fitzgerald) wants to marry him. However, the ruse is unexpectedly exposed during Sean and Mary Kate's wedding reception, when Will announces his intention to marry Kathy, much to her disgust. Angered by having been set up, Will withholds Mary Kate's dowry, but Sean refuses to physically fight Will as Mary Kate expects of him -- until the the stakes become too high and he must fight for what he loves.
The show's book by Robert E. McEnroe veers wildly in tone, often making comic light of the plot's more serious overtones. And the character's various conflicts are resolved so quickly that they don't have any heft. And while one understands that Sean is supposed to be quiet – aka, the strong, silent type – he's practically a cipher, eliminating some of the piece's possible romantic quality (although Barbour's broad physique and booming baritone do help in explaining his appeal). Meanwhile, Powers, a superb singer and fine actress, focuses a little too much on Mary's independent side, never fully convincing us of how seriously Mary takes the town's quaint (and anti-feminist) customs.
Burke's original score has a couple of pretty ballads, such as Mary Kate's "He Makes Me Feel I'm Lovely," but it is most notable for its comic duets for Mikeen and Kathy, "I Wouldn't Bet One Penny" and "Dee-lightful is the World," both delivered with great panache by the big-voiced Fitzgerald and the adorable Cohen. However, three of this production's most memorable numbers, "It Could Happen to You," "But Beautiful," and "When Is Sometime?" are actually taken from the Hollywood catalogue of Burke and his frequent collaborator, Jimmy Van Heusen, while the lovely opening "Inishfree" (sung with great feeling by handsome Patrick Cummings) is by Richard Farrelly and was used as the theme music for The Quiet Man.
Of course, some of what might make Donnybrook! feel more full-bodied simply can't be accomplished here due to the small Irish Rep space – there's little choreography, no large chorus (even though supporting players Mary Mallen, David Stiler, Terry Donnelly, Barbara Marineau, Kevin McGuire, and Kern McFadden all make favorable impressions), and only a fine four-person orchestra. But I'm not sure if bigger would make this quirky musical worth fighting for.
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