Based on the John Ford/John Wayne film The Quiet Man, the Johnny Burke musical Donnybrook! opened on Broadway in 1961, ran for two months, and then disappeared leaving hardly a trace. Why that was, exactly, I couldn’t tell you, having neither investigated the half-century-old reviews, nor seen the production (for which I present the solid excuse that I wasn’t born yet). But based on the charming-in-spite-of-itself new revival at the Irish Rep, I’d hazard a guess that it had something to do with two things: the pleasant but not very memorable music Burke wrote to accompany his clever lyrics, and the oddball story.
[Pictured (l-r): Jenny Powers (Mary Kate Danaher) and James Barbour (Sean Enright) in DONNYBROOK! at Irish Repertory Theatre, directed by Charlotte Moore. Photo by Carol Rosegg.]
Sean Enright is an Irish-American prizefighter who, after killing a man in the ring, decides to return to the Irish village of his roots to live a quiet life. There he meets the fiery Mary Kate Danaher, ripe for love but hopelessly picky and full of piss and vinegar to boot. They fall for each other, but Mary Kate’s rough-and-tumble brother Will thinks the American is a coward and won’t even allow him to court her. Flynn, the local matchmaker, tricks Will into permitting the match by convincing him that the independently wealthy widow Kathy Carey is ready to marry Will, which would bump Mary Kate out of Will’s house, where there’s room for only one woman.
Time-honored social custom is a force so powerful here that it threatens the truest of love, even lust itself. Courting rituals, the all-important dowry, even the very existence of a matchmaker, show us we’re in a quaint fantasy rather than a realistic representation of a real place. Of course, what better accommodation for fantasy than musical theater? But the show’s easy acceptance of the idea that a man must fight if he’s a real man, and the way the tale wraps up – with the antagonists making peace and everybody ending up happy only after, and because of, the big fistfight Sean eventually deigns to engage in – make the story not just as old-fashioned as its mores and Burke’s music, but downright peculiar.
Whatever caused Donnybrook!‘s long lapse into obscurity, Irish Rep’s revival incorporates significant changes, notably the deletion of a few musical numbers and the insertion of several songs Burke wrote not for this musical, but for his much-better-known collaboration with Jimmy van Heusen: “It Could Happen to You,” “But Beautiful,” and, from the 1949 movie A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (a vehicle for Bing Crosby, with whom Burke worked a lot), “When Is Sometime?” Interpolations like this aren’t always comfortable, but they work fine here, as do the snatches of traditional Irish songs sung by the townsfolk at several moments to convey high spirits.
High spirits infuse the whole production. Director Charlotte Moore and a top-notch cast make the most of Robert E. McEnroe’s funny book as well as the sprightly songs. James Noone’s efficient set easily revolves and swings open and closed to become the whitewashed stone exterior of Sean’s cottage, the comfy interior of Kathy Carey’s pub, and other locales. Though staged in a very small space, the numbers incorporate some amusing choreography (by Barry McNabb).
Pictured (l-r) Kathy Fitzgerald (Kathy Carey) and Samuel Cohen (Mikeen Flynn) in DONNYBROOK! at Irish Repertory Theatre, directed by Charlotte Moore. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
It’s also nice to see a musical featuring Broadway talent sung without mics; now and then you might have to strain your ears to pick up a lyric, but the four-piece orchestra led by musical director and pianist John Bell plays with sensitivity as well as impressive technical mastery, and the voices are up to the task. Most stirring of all is the strong baritone James Barbour brings to the role of shambling Sean, who just wants to be left in peace. (John Wayne played him in the non-musical movie.) A dervish-y Jenny Powers brings both grace and gumption to her memorable portrayal of Mary Kate, Ted Koch makes an ornery yet somehow magnetic Will Danaher, and the supporting cast is a delight through and through.
Wonky story and all, this is a thoroughly entertaining production of a thoroughly old-fashioned musical. Catch Donnybrook! through March 31 at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22 St., NYC.