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Peg O' My Heart

Kathleen Early and J. Kennedy
in Peg O’ My Heart
(Photo © Carol Rosegg
Charlotte Moore, artistic director of the Irish Repertory Theatre, deserves many thanks and perhaps a special citation from the Irish Tourist Bureau for her dedication and determination. With company producing director Ciaran O'Reilly, she's enhanced the already good name of Irish drama on this less-green island by seeing to it that the best old and new plays from the homeland are done regularly. She's insisted that performers and directors of Irish descent are regularly seen and, in the endeavor, has herself directed 27 productions.

Give her credit for her painstaking and diligent work on behalf of the ever-expanding Irish canon, but don't give her much credit for the musical she's attempted to make out of J. Hartley Manners's drawing room comedy Peg O' My Heart. This is the piece of 1912 blarney about an Irish-American lass who breezes into the lives of a stuffy Scarborough, England family and causes them to forsake their hoity-toity ways, snagging herself a titled gent in the process.

More significantly, Peg O' My Heart is the vehicle that the prolific, Australian-born playwright wrote for his wife, Laurette Taylor and in which she scored her greatest triumph until, making a comeback in 1945, she played Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams's Glass Menagerie and became a theater legend. (Note: An earlier musical stage adaptation of the Manners play, with songs by David Heneker, ran briefly in London in 1984; titled Peg, it starred Ann Morrison and Sian Phillips.)

Plays written to show off their leading ladies were a dime a dozen in the early part of the 20th century; those were the days of Maude Adams touring Peter Pan and Ethel Barrymore showing up repeatedly in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines and Sunday. For the most part, the plays weren't contrived to be deathless, just pleasant time-passers. Perhaps only George Bernard Shaw was plugging for more meaningful content with, say, Pygmalion, which also involves an unspoiled hoyden shaking up the assumptions of her supposed betters. So no one need get into high (or even medium) dudgeon over a lady taking liberties with Peg O' My Heart. Indeed, the script's only hope of engaging a contemporary audience with its naïve brand of positive thinking may be in having diverting songs added to it. But it goes without saying that, if ditties are needed to brighten up a creaky text, they'd better be good.

Moore's aren't. The aspiring tunesmith stumbles right from her opening number, wherein the snooty Chichesters, whom Peg is visiting, sing without affect about the joys of privilege and are joined in their blank haughtiness by a couple of neighbors and a manservant. Immediately, Moore conjures memories of the far superior "Ascot Gavotte" from My Fair Lady and signals that she may never rise above the cheerlessly derivative -- nor does she. Despite Eddie Guttman's sweet orchestrations for piano, violin and cello, Moore's compositions decompose in the very act of being delivered. Although she occasionally hints at a catchy melody, she is devoid of wit and inspiration when it comes to words. A love song called "Feet Glued to the Floor" for Peg (Kathleen Early) and thoughtful Sir Gerald (J. Kennedy), the love interest whom she doesn't know to be her guardian, includes the lines "Suddenly, I'm most awfully happy" and "Suddenly, I'm just feeling sappy." That level of imagination is maintained throughout.

Except when it gets worse. Moore, who also lacks an instinct for where songs fit neatly into action, has had the audacity to write a title tune for the show. This wouldn't seem too clumsy a notion were it not for the fact that, in 1912, Fred Fisher and Alfred Bryan won $1,000 for penning a song called "Peg O' My Heart" to help promote the play. That ditty, dedicated to Taylor, became an instant hit and remained one. In 1947, the Harmonicats and The Three Suns covered it, and once again the Taylor-pegged (pun intended) strain climbed the charts. Its lyrics may not be worthy of Porter or Sondheim, but the sentiment that goes "Since I heard your lilting laughter / It's your Irish heart I'm after" has it all over Moore's "I thought love was an illusion / I resisted from the start / Now I see a new conclusion / When I look at you." (According to copyright law, titles can't be reserved, but there are moments when we might wish otherwise. This is one of them.)

Kathleen Early as Peg
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
It's not enough that Moore undertook the score for Peg O' My Heart. She also directs the production, though with slightly better results. On James Morgan's truly fine Victorian set with its shawl-covered divans, she gets the actors circulating as vivaciously as they can between those numbers, which are show-stopping in the negative sense of that term. (There is no choreography.) Kathleen Early as Peg shows plenty of spunk. Short and hinting at plump, Early may share Laurette Taylor's joie de vivre and seems to have her physical attributes as well. (In Betsy Blair's new book, The Memory of All That, she recalls understudying Julie Haydon in the original Glass Menagerie production and describes Taylor, with whom she shared the stage during understudy rehearsals, as "small and round.")

The other actors, disporting themselves in David Toser's costumes -- and, in some cases, Robert-Charles Vallance's wigs -- include Jonathan Hadley, Melissa Hart, Rita Harvey, Jody Madaras, Don Sparks, James A. Stephens, and J. Kennedy. They keep smiling through, which is no mean accomplishment, given that they have to look as if they believe Moore's songs. In particular, Harvey (as Ethel Chichester, initially Peg's nemesis but eventually her beholden pal) and Kennedy (as the man who wants Peg to make a home in his heart) are as polished as the furniture is intended to be. Mary Jo Dondlinger did the lighting and Zachary Williamson the sound design. They and their colleagues, none of whom can be operating on an especially generous budget, meet the Irish Rep's usual estimable standards.

Not too long ago, Moore created a musical adaptation of Dion Boucicault's Streets of New York with similarly off-putting results. As the accomplished artistic head of such a valuable outfit, she is certainly allowed her indulgences; the rest of us, however, needn't make time for her bad Manners.


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