In New York City, love across the tracks can easily become love across the river. Musicals Tonight! concludes its season of musical readings with Irene, a romantic comedy about a plucky Irish girl from Ninth Avenue who finds love on the wealthy, distant shores of ... Long Island. The show, which opened on Broadway in 1919 and ran for 675 performances, features songs by Harry Tierney (music) and Joseph McCarthy (lyrics) and a book from legendary writers Hugh Wheeler (Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music) and Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof). This charming musical is a hodgepodge of styles, and it calls up the homespun sweetness of Meet Me in St. Louis, which also centers on the dreams of a feisty Irish lass (and features a book by Wheeler). But unlike the Missouri-bound heroine, Irene isn't content to stay at home—she is an enterprising businesswoman determined to find success.
Irene's business is piano tuning, and she spends nights poring over business administration books (borrowed from the public library) to better learn how to attract clients. She dubs her company the "AAAAAA Piano Store"—ensuring that she will be the first entry in the phone book.
The first call (and job) comes from the Marshall Estate (on Marshall Drive, in Marshall Town, Long Island). There, she meets Donald, the young heir, and she overwhelms him with vibrant stories tinted by her fetching personality before realizing that he is, in fact, one of the "filthy" rich.
Impressed with her business savvy, Donald convinces her to manage the new enterprise of a fashion designer friend. Irene thrives with her natural business moxie, and, together with her two friends Helen and Jane, she also becomes a mannequin for Madame Lucy's work. Of course, the inevitable amorous emotions soon intervene, and Irene and Donald must sort out a relationship that is challenged by both social dissonance and their business partnership. In many ways, this is a story about ambition, rather than love, at first sight.
Although the dated plot sags a little in spots, the cast—adeptly directed and choreographed by Thomas Sabella-Mills—turns on the charm to put forth an endearing spin on this musical.
Leading the pack is Jillian Louis, who gives a gem of a performance in the title role. Feisty and determined, she shades the role with delicate, appealing, and original comic touches. "I've got a joooooooob!" she announces, capturing the many levels of potential in this development. Her voice and perky presentation often suggest a young Judy Garland, especially her simple, unaffected, and exceedingly vulnerable (and heartbreaking) rendition of the standard "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows."
Louis and her leading man, Patrick Porter, also do fine work on the duet "You Made Me Love You." Much of the fun of experiencing older and lesser-known musicals in their entirety is discovering how these classic songs (so often separated from their original material) actually fit into the plot of a show.
Many of the songs evoke the light and delicate melodies of the late 19th century, but the standouts are the more over-the-top and Irish-influenced pieces. As Madame Lucy (who is actually a man), Justin Sayre scores with the overripe and boastful "They Go Wild, Simply Wild Over Me." Sayre winningly channels a liberal amount of Nathan Lane to create his animated and effete Lucy, and the sassy song also forecasts the sensational antics of Roger DeBris in Mel Brooks's The Producers. (It's quite intriguing to see a gay stereotype even half explored in such an early musical.) A side note: George S. Irving, who won a Tony Award for the role in the 1973 revival (alongside Debbie Reynolds), was in the audience the night I attended.
Irene chimes in on an entertaining duet with her mother (Jane Carroll, saddled with the challenging task of playing both Irene's mother and Donald's mother). "Mother Angel Darling" features Louis and Carroll chucking good-natured barbs back and forth, and these affectionate insults capture the rough-hewn love between a mother and daughter—a relationship that has become worn and comfortable through the years.
As Irene's friends, Katherine McClain and Jendi Tarde turn in top-notch comic performances and stellar vocals—they each find just the right amount of pluck, punch, and personality in their supporting roles.
The action problematically rushes toward a breathless conclusion, and it would seem that Irene—especially as rendered through Louis's exemplary and complex performance—deserves a more considered and pointed ending. Still, the rather scatterbrained plot doesn't distract us too long from the irrepressible Irene.
This semi-staged production requires that the actors hold scripts, but they manage to fully commit to their roles, and the scripts quickly become nearly invisible. With simple sets and costumes, producer Mel Miller brings his latest season of musical revivals—a must for any musical theater aficionado—to a delightful conclusion.