NEW YORK — Star-crossed lovers, an onstage brawl, great singing and gentle mockery of Irish stereotypes have a perfect confluence in the charming revival of the 1961 musical "Donnybrook!" currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
"Donnybrook!" is based on the Maurice Walsh story "The Quiet Man," which was made into a hugely popular 1952 John Ford film starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. The show, which had a brief Broadway run in 1961, features music and lyrics by Johnny Burke and book by Robert McEnroe.
The sprightly, boisterous production that opened Sunday features a very talented cast who pour their hearts and voices into their performances. Irish Rep's artistic director Charlotte Moore presents a lively, tongue-in-cheek staging, with the cast near-constantly in motion.
The parish priest (David Sitler) wryly informs the audience at the outset that, while the story occurs in springtime of 1951, in Ireland it still felt like "a thousand years" earlier. Outdated traditions include a brother forbidding his sister to marry and then "shaming" her by withholding her dowry. A young woman strongly believes she must have a cash dowry at marriage to make her "a partner and a wife" instead of a servant, and also believes that a real man would always resort to fisticuffs to protect her honor.
When the populace of Innisfree village are not all singing and dancing, they're verbally sparring or holding spirit-fueled discussions in the pub, where even Father Finucane stops in for "a morning glass." And, as the ensemble proclaims in the joyous title song, they all love to see a "swingin', swearin' fight/a donnybrook!"
As Irish-American prizefighter Sean Enright, handsome baritone James Barbour ("A Tale of Two Cities") beautifully voices his songs. His richness of tone is well-matched with Jenny Powers ("Little Women"), playing his love interest. As feisty Mary Kate Danagher, Powers has a sparkle in her eyes and a strong-willed stamp in every step.
The couple's voices soar beautifully on duets like the lovely combination of their two yearning solos, "When Is Sometime/For My Own." It's a given that their romance will have a rocky course, both helped and unintentionally hindered by the plotting of the parish's official matchmaker, Mikeen Flynn (played with an air of elfin mischief by Samuel Cohen.)
Flynn misguidedly pretends to set up the area's wealthy widow, Kathy Carey (a spirited, touching performance by Kathy Fitzgerald), with the most unpleasant man in town. He is Mary Kate's brutish brother, Will (a nicely truculent Ted Koch). Cohen and Fitzgerald sing and dance together with seasoned flair, especially in their aptly-titled duet, "Dee-lightful is the Word."
Patrick Cummings and Mary Mallen are adorable as a pair of young lovers. Cummings' vibrant voice is a treat, as he opens the musical with a lovely rendition of "Innisfree." In a modern touch, Mallen's character sweetly advises traditionalist Mary Kate that, "Dowries aren't important in this day and age. Money is only money."
Terry Donnelly and Barbara Marineau are very funny as a pair of gossipy, hard-drinking biddies. Kevin McGuire and Kern McFadden round out the village population as admiring supporters of Mary Kate.
Moore's creative handling of a chase scene and the inevitable epic brawl is masterful, given the limitations of the small stage. Corey Pierno's fight choreography and Barry McNabb's dance steps enliven the proceedings, and the live four-piece band, led by musical director John Bell, adds wonderfully to the light-hearted ambience.
On the ingenious set designed by James Noone, a few walls joined together magically revolve into several interiors, casually rearranged by the characters as if it were part of their normal chores. This well-sung, whimsical "Donnybrook!" is another bright success during the Irish Rep's 25th anniversary celebration.