Irene: Broadway's First Revisal?
Since the company's inception nine years ago, Musicals Tonight! has been giving Broadway musical lovers a taste of history with their staged concerts of rarely performed shows by the great masters, often presented with minimal changes from the original book and score. But with their delightful new production of the 1973 version of Irene, Musicals Tonight! gives New Yorkers a chance to take in what might very well have been Broadway's first revisal.
Sure, there had been revivals featuring book revisions and added and deleted songs before producer Harry Rigby, spurred by the success of the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette, thought of presenting the long-running hit from 1919 (Broadway's longest running book musical before Oklahoma!) as a vehicle for the Broadway debut of Debbie Reynolds, but never before had there been such a drastic overhauling of a successful show for its return to New York. With the original bookwriter (James Montgomery, based on his play Irene O'Dare), composer (Harry Tierney) and lyricist (Joe McCarthy) all having made their entrances through heaven's stage door, Rigby did some tinkering with their story of an Irish piano tuner from an immigrant neighborhood on Manhattan's 9th Avenue who falls for a wealthy Long Island lad who is so impressed by her business sense that he hires her to manage his new investment; a line of fashions by a flamboyant male designer known as Madame Lucy. Hugh Wheeler was brought in to write a new book (with Joseph Stein added to the mix during previews) with new songs, and lyric revisions to old songs, penned by Charles Gaynor, Otis Clements, Wally Harper and Jack Lloyd. Only five of the original Tierney/McCarthy tunes remained, including the big hit "Alice Blue Gown", but a couple of popular numbers McCarthy wrote with other composers, "You Made Me Love You" and "They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me" found their way into the new Irene. "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" was sung by Reynolds during previews, but was cut before the Broadway opening. It was added again when Jane Powell came in as her replacement.
With its assemblage by committee, the new Irene is rather awkward when the singing stops. The revival ran for a year and a half on the strength of Debbie Reynolds' star power and a Tony winning turn by George S. Irving as Madame Lucy. The concert staging by Musicals Tonight! benefits from an exceptional cast that performs with gusto and finesse under director/choreographer Thomas Sabella-Mills and music director/vocal arranger James Stenborg. The spunky Jillian Louis makes for a delightfully brash and appealing Irene and Patrick Porter's shirt is stuffed just right as her upper crust beau. Janet Carroll mixes highbrow and lowbrow, doubling as the mothers of both romantic leads, singing with both a boisterous belt and a high-toned mezzo. Katherine McClain and Jendi Tarde do some wonderful clowning and singing in their supporting roles as Irene's model friends.
Justin Sayre's two previous outings with Musicals Tonight! have both been as flamboyant artistic types and while playing Madame Lucy this time around he provides more of the same. With a pitch-perfect knack for verbal wit, strong pipes and a light-footed stride, Sayre gives consistently excellent performances in these roles.
Although Irene is certainly frothy fluff, it also brings up an interesting historical footnote in its presentation of an apparently gay character. In 1919 Broadway producers were seeing how far they could stretch the boundaries of social acceptability in stage entertainments. Racy subjects like homosexuality, pre-marital sex and adult themes titillated audiences until Mayor Jimmy Walker began locking up and raiding theatres that stepped over the boundaries of what was considered decency. In 1919, Madame Lucy, though never openly called homosexual, was always referred to as "she" and even "Nancy." The 1973 revival toned down the stereotyped character a bit and even slipped in a plot twist where Lucy winds up being the long-lost lover of Irene's mother. This twist is rewritten for the Musicals Tonight! staging, I presume because of the age difference of the actors playing the roles, and in doing so they've rightfully given Madame Lucy his sexual preference back.