The songs are, in fact, the very best part of The Streets of New York. If the show seems like an old-time melodrama, that's because it's based on just such an overwrought, 19th century play by Dion Boucicault. In its current musicalized adaptation, the over-the-top quality becomes an asset. Kudos to Charlotte Moore, Irish Rep's artistic director, who so boldly adapted the piece, wrote the enchanting music and lyrics, and directed the production with panache.
The story begins during The Panic of 1837, when banks were failing all over New York. (Heavy exposition and a relative shortage of music at the top of the show might cause panic among the audience, but hang in there!) We meet a corrupt banker named Gideon Bloodgood (Ray DeMattis) who is about to abscond with the money in his vault rather than face ruin in the morning. At the last minute, a wealthy sea captain leaves his money in the personal care of the banker--who does not officially deposit it--and the captain promptly dies of a heart attack. Bloodgood steals the money and saves his bank.
Then there's a quick, 20-year fast forward to The Panic of 1857. It's at this point that the musical truly begins to display its stylish good humor. In one of the early songs, the beautiful but wonderfully wicked daughter of the banker, named Alida (Kristin Maloney), maliciously and deliciously sings "Oh! How I Love Being Rich." Later, there's a wonderful, high-style, theatrical duet called "He (She) Doesn't Know I'm Alive" between the dead sea captain's now destitute son, Paul (Joshua Park), and the female ragamuffin Dixie (Danielle Ferland), who loves him.
The burgeoning relationship between Paul and Dixie constitutes one of the many subplots of the musical. A major thread of the story involves Mark Livingstone (Michael Halling), a handsome young man of society who has suddenly gone bankrupt, and his true love, the dead sea captain's daughter, Lucy (Donna Kane). Their happiness is complicated by the designs of Alida, who uses her father's money to buy her way into society via a marriage to Livingstone. In their despair, Mark and Lucy sing "Poor Wounded Heart," a simple love song with a recurrent, haunting melody. (Mark Hartman, who arranged the score so elegantly and provides the show's musical direction, is listed in the cast of characters as The Piano Man.)
The show gets its bite from Brendan Badger (Ciaran O'Reilly), a charming, Irish scoundrel. O'Reilly, the producing director of the Irish Rep, finds just the right tone to balance Badger's criminal intent with his good heart. He also gets the opportunity to perform a duet with his nemesis, the banker; they give us a song and dance version of the amusing "Villains," yet another winner in a score of more than a dozen wonderfully old-fashioned tunes.
The large ensemble cast is splendid. Among the most memorable, Halling--tall and handsome, with a big, expressive voice--has the aura of stardom; Kane is a sweet treasure; Park (who played the title role in the ill fated The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on Broadway last season) is a winsome and winning revelation; and Ferland steals every scene she's in.
Hugh Landwehr's sets get in their own way from time to time, but Clifton Taylor's lighting and Linda Fisher's costumes enhance the tongue-in-cheek nature of the melodrama. Still, the real star of this production is Charlotte Moore, who took a forgettable play and turned it into a small but gleaming musical theater jewel.