Review: A Teen's Dark Fantasies Become Musical Numbers in Asher Muldoon's The Butcher Boy
The new musical, based on Patrick McCabe's novel of the same name, is running at Irish Repertory Theater.
There's a reason that antiheroes with sociopathic tendencies do not have a larger presence in musical theater: It's tough to make music out of murder. Not that such musicals can't be done well (Sweeney Todd, Assassins), but without a firm grasp on how to mine dark comedy from disturbing subject matter, it's more likely that they will fall on their own knives (American Psycho).
The Butcher Boy, Asher Muldoon's adaptation of Patrick McCabe's 1992 novel now running under the direction of Ciarán O'Reilly at Irish Repertory Theater, unfortunately belongs in the latter camp. As Francie Brady, the show's troubled teen and narrator whose alienation from friends and family fuels his antisocial impulses, Nicholas Barasch tries like hell to tease the funny out of his role, but Muldoon's book and lyrics for the most part lack the wit and satirical punch needed to garner laughs rather than uncomfortable groans.
The show begins creepily enough in Francie's interior world, with four pig-mask-wearing actors (Teddy Trice, Carey Rebecca Brown, Polly McKie, and David Baida) peeking around corners on a set flanked by comic book images and a large television screen at the rear of the stage (impressive set design by Charlie Corcoran). Living in 1960s Ireland, Francie dreams of an eternal childhood with his good friend Joe (Christian Strange) in their duet "Live Like This Forever."
But Francie comes from troubled circumstances. His mother (Andrea Lynn Green) has bouts with mental illness and is frequently carted off to the "garage" (psychiatric hospital), leaving him with an alcoholic father (Scott Stangland) and a town full of gossips. The worst of them is Mrs. Nugent (Michele Ragusa), who refers to the Brady family as "pigs," a label that Francie incorporates into his own self-image and behavior. She and her son, Phillip (Daniel Marconi), become the focus of Francie's antipathy as his world begins to unravel following his mother's suicide, his destruction of the Nugents' kitchen, his own stint in a mental institution where he undergoes shock therapy, and his subsequent abandonment by Joe and others he once held dear. Completely alienated from everyone around him, Francie is primed to commit an unspeakable act.
Muldoon has made some alterations to McCabe's story, which can at times go much much darker (gone in the musical is the abusive sexual relationship that Francie has with a priest). Yet McCabe harnesses comical wordplay and narration in a way that Muldoon's adaptation generally fails to do. There are exceptions: Marconi gives a fine performance in the show's one truly delightful number "Phillip's Song," sliding gracefully across the stage and doing some good old-fashioned mugging for the audience. Strange turns in a deft performance here too as Francie's conflicted friend Joe, linking arms with Phillip and harmonizing as they kick across the stage in a fun vaudevillian routine (choreography by Barry McNabb).
Despite David Hancock Turner's fine musical direction of the show's quintet (cheekily referred to in the program as the Slaughterhouse Five), things slow down with the show's numerous ballads, some of which either do little to advance the plot or seem out of place in the landscape of Francie's imagination, such as "Don't Forget About Me," sung by Francie's Uncle Alo (Joe Cassidy) and his erstwhile lover Mary (Kerry Conte). Fortunately, a few of the songs do allow their performers to shine, most notably Conte, whose gorgeous soprano in "Anything and Everything" brings us momentarily to attention.
O'Reilly does offer up creative flourishes that make us long for a better score. In one scene, costume designer Orla Long gives Mrs. Nugent a pink, grotesquely large, Mad Hatter-like hat, which provides the kind of surrealistic pop that could have brought so many of Francie's other fantasies to life. Kat C. Zhou achieves similar effects with her haunting, dreamlike lighting, washing the stage in shadows and menacing colors at the height of Francie's frenzies.
But when Francie's final grisly act comes to pass ("The Color of Oranges"), any magic that the actors and creatives have conjured beforehand is lost in a near ludicrous scene. It's inevitable that we look to Francie for parallels between him and other disturbed youth in our own time who commit horrendous acts of violence — all of us, McCabe and Muldoon seem to say, play our part in the creation of monsters. It's too bad that these ideas get lost in a muddled, uninspired score; as a musical, The Butcher Boy belongs on the chopping block.