Irish Repertory Theatre,
132 W. 22nd St., New York, N.Y. ($55-$65)
212-727-2737, closes March 31
Turning a classic movie into a stage musical is a risky proposition that usually pays off in grief. When the source material is ultrafamiliar and the original film full of top-tier stars, it's all but impossible to survive the comparison game. Johnny Burke, one of the greatest lyricists of the golden age of Hollywood musicals, tried to bring John Ford's "The Quiet Man" to Broadway in 1961 and failed dismally. "Donnybrook!" closed after 68 performances and was never seen again—until now. It makes sense that the Irish Repertory Theatre should have taken an interest in a musical set in Innisfree, and Charlotte Moore, the company's artistic director, has contrived with her usual deftness to paper over the show's flaws and bring its considerable charms to the fore.
The comparison game always starts with casting. Whom do you put in a musical whose original film version starred John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara and a gaggle of scene-stealing character actors? In Wayne's case, Ms. Moore has opted for a tall, bluff fellow with a magnificent singing voice. James Barbour, who was last seen on Broadway in 2008's "A Tale of Two Cities," is a sterling-silver musical-comedy baritone, and "Donnybrook!" takes wing whenever he opens his mouth. No, he doesn't have Wayne's redwoodlike physical presence, but the Duke, on the other hand, couldn't carry a tune in a holster, so I'd call it a draw. What's more, you'll have no trouble at all understanding why Mr. Barbour's character, a chastened ex-boxer from Pittsburgh who returns to his birthplace to seek a quiet life, would have fallen for Jenny Powers at first sight. Ms. Powers is by turns spunky and sexy in O'Hara's role, and everyone else in the cast is entirely plausible.
The main reason for the initial failure of "Donnybrook!" was Mr. Burke's good-to-middling score, for which he supplied both words and music. While he was a big-league lyricist, Mr. Burke was strictly an amateur composer—it was his longtime collaboration with Jimmy Van Heusen that put him on the map—and "Donnybrook!" contains only one song, "Sad Was the Day," that is comparable in quality to the songs that he wrote with Mr. Van Heusen. (Stephen Sondheim included it in a list of songs he wished he'd written.) To that end, Ms. Moore has done no small amount of smart musical tinkering, dropping some of the weaker songs and interpolating two blue-chip Burke-Van Heusen ballads, "But Beautiful" and "It Could Happen to You," plus an assortment of authentic Irish tunes that were heard in "The Quiet Man." She's also tightened up Robert E. McEnroe's book, and though the results sometimes move too fast, especially when compared with Ford's broadly expansive film, most of her cuts serve "Donnybrook!" well.
It never fails to amaze me how the Irish Rep manages to squeeze musicals into its miniature theater without breaking anything. This time around, James Noone, the set designer, has installed a turntable on the company's thumbnail-sized stage, allowing the actors to zip from scene to scene with breezy efficiency. The four-piece band (violin, cello, harp and piano) plays with spirit and the cast sings with schooner-waving gusto. It's possible, of course, that the show would work better in a bigger house, but I suspect that the warm, clarifying intimacy of Ms. Moore's staging is an important part of what brings "Donnybrook!" to life.
You Can't Take It With You
Asolo Repertory Theatre,
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, Fla. ($20-$72),
941-351-8000/800-361-8388, closes April 20
Now that regional theaters across the country are feeling the economic bite, they're increasingly steering clear of large-cast, big-budget plays. Not so Florida's Asolo Repertory Theatre, which has just revived "You Can't Take It With You," the 1936 screwball farce about a loony but lovable Depression-era family that won George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart a Pulitzer Prize and was turned by Frank Capra into an equally popular (if less effective) movie. If you've come down with the February blues, this production will return you to the right side of the bed.
"You Can't Take It With You" calls for a cast of 19, thus putting it out of reach of most of today's professional troupes. Fortunately, Asolo Rep, a regional company that doubles as a drama school, can use student actors to cover smaller roles, as it did last season with "Once in a Lifetime," the first Kaufman-Hart collaboration, and is doing again now. I know all about lightning not striking twice, but this production, soundly and skillfully directed by Peter Amster, is at least as good as its predecessor. Brittany Proia is fetching as Alice, who adores her relatives but fears that their eccentricities (that's putting it mildly) will scare off her new boyfriend and his staid parents. David S. Howard, the shrewdest of old theatrical pros, is splendid as the cracked but unflappable Grandpa Vanderhof. His calm, understated acting anchors the play in reality, thus freeing everyone else to let 'er rip.—Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, blogs about theater and the other arts at www.terryteachout.com. Write to him at email@example.com.
A version of this article appeared February 22, 2013, on page D9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Quiet Man Sings.