REVIEW: Musical Melodrama The Streets of New York Delivers Fun Moments in an Uneven Revival
Irish Repertory Theatre brings back its adaptation of Dion Boucicault's play 20 years after its premiere.
The original version of Dion Boucicault's 1857 play The Poor of New York called for part of its set, a New York City tenement building, to be consumed by fire at the end. That was the kind of sensational theatrics that audiences craved back in the day. And it's not hard to understand why. Boucicault's melodrama lacks plot surprises, character development, and believable dialogue. And it's why the Irish-born playwright's works are rarely produced nowadays without big changes to help make them palatable to modern audiences.
That, presumably, was part of the reason director Charlotte Moore added musical numbers to the play in 2001, when Irish Repertory Theatre first staged its tuneful adaptation, retitled The Streets of New York. Even with song and dance added in, the show is still a hard sell. But thanks to a talented cast that, for the most part, leans into the camp potential inherent in the play's absurdly artificial language, this current revival avoids going completely up in flames.
The convoluted plot revolves around several New York City individuals and families who have been plunged into penury by the economic collapses of 1837 and 1857 and who are hounded by the evil banker Gideon Bloodgood (David Hess). Once-wealthy gentleman Mark Livingston (Ben Jacoby) reveals to the struggling baker Mr. Puffy (Richard Henry) that he has lost his fortune, and confides that he is in love Lucy Fairweather, whose family's inheritance was stolen by Bloodgood. Bloodgood's daughter, the conniving Alida (Amanda Jane Cooper), wants to be admitted into high society but is prevented by her father's bad reputation, so she tries to destroy Mark and Lucy's relationship to marry Mark herself.
Meanwhile, the artful Badger (Justin Keyes) tries to blackmail his former boss Bloodgood with evidence of his theft of the Fairweathers' inheritance. Through a series of histrionic scenes involving attempted suicide (Amy Bodnar as Susan Fairweather is especially good here), a soft-shoe number between Bloodgood and Badger ("Villains"), and a fire-free re-creation of that tenement conflagration (impressive set design by Hugh Landwehr), the blackguard Bloodgood is exposed, couples are united, the poor are restored to solvency, and we are sent back into the world with a song of hope and togetherness ("Take Your Brother's Hand").
It's not obvious at the beginning of this show that we're in for any fun at all. When a gloomy swirl of New York's poor come onstage in the opening number, "The Streets of New York," and the five-piece orchestra (directed by Mark Hartman) plays a haunting melody that sounds oddly similar to the opening of Sweeney Todd, there's a tense moment when we fear that this production might not be going for laughs but instead might be testing our ability to endure a humorless two-and-a-half-hour period piece.
Fortunately, by the third number, "Oh How I Love Being Rich," sung by Cooper as the delightfully wicked Alida attired in an ornate hoop dress (splendid costumes by Linda Fisher), we begin to relax. Her over-the-top performance tells us, a little late, that Moore is not taking the script at face value. Other humorous tunes soon follow, including the quirky and cute love song "He Doesn't Know I'm Alive," sung by young lovers Dixie Puffy (Jordan Tyson) and Paul Fairweather (Ryan Vona). The production, we realize, will try to be a comedy after all.
Sometimes it succeeds at that, and sometimes not. Moore's music is not especially memorable either, but it keeps the otherwise languorous plot trotting along. Polly McKie joins Tyson and Henry for the hummable "A Taste of the Good Life," while Cooper and Daniel J. Maldonado as the Duke whip things into a tangolike frenzy (choreography by Barry McNabb) in "Bad Boys." Price Waldman completes the cast with his understated comic timing at the butler, Edwards. By the end, the cast really gets the camp fire crackling. If only it had been going the whole time.