Theater review by Adam Feldman
Just in time for the holiday season, the Irish Rep has cooked up a chestnut: a tasty revival of Dion Boucicault’s 1857 play The Poor of New York, transformed into a musical with original songs by director Charlotte Moore. Boucicault was the 19th century’s foremost writer of melodramas in the English language—another of his works was the basis of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon—and this play doesn’t stint on old-timey dastardy, reversals of luck, virtuous sacrifice and sentimental romance. Its pot boileth over.
Moore’s adaptation embraces the play's quaint sensationalism and sententiousness with open arms and a wink. “We’re a necessary evil / We’re an entertaining lot / We enjoy our reputation / Without us there’d be no plot,” sing the villains—rapacious banker Gideon Bloodgood (David Hess) and would-be blackmailer Brendan Badger (a wily Justin Keyes)—in a song called “Villains.” Meanwhile, the less fortunate just try to stay alive. “Widows and orphans with cold, bare feet / Holler, ‘Hot Corn’ on the filthy mud street!” sings Mark Livingstone (Ben Jacoby), a handsome young fellow who once was rich but has come a cropper in the Panic of 1857.
Also ill-turned by the wheel of fortune are Susan Faithweather (Amy Bodnar), whose sea-captain husband foolishly entrusted his entire fortune to Bloodgood before an ill-timed death by apoplexy, and her children, Lucy (DeLaney Westfall) and Paul (Ryan Vona). Proud but destitute, they have taken a meager lodging in Five Points with the kindly Puffy family: Dermot (Richard Henry), Dolly (Polly McKie) and their scrappy daughter, Dixie (Jordan Tyson). Mark loves Lucy, and Paul loves Dixie, but can these flames survive the howling winds of this cruel world?
The Streets of New York’s opening number sets the wrong tone, and it takes a while for the show to properly settle its tongue into cheek. But it clicks in with “Oh How I Love Being Rich,” a spoiled-brat aria sung by Bloodgood’s daughter, Alida (the marvelous Amanda Jane Cooper), who is wickedly bent on marrying Mark. It’s mostly good, silly fun from then on, buoyed by a talented cast of 12—they're an entertaining lot—and a six-piece band that includes a harp; Linda Fisher’s splendid costumes and Hugh Landwehr’s witty set add to the charm. (One back wall is a hundred-dollar promissory note; the skyline is covered with newspaper.) Boucicault’s shows were renowned in their day for their spectacular stage effects, and this version scales them down adorably: It seems fair to say that no one in the audience at the Irish Rep is likely to be awe-struck by the play’s once-famous inferno scene, for example. But the modest scale suits this show nicely. Instead of raging fire, it gives us just enough warmth to roast a Christmas treat.
The Streets of New York. Irish Repertory Theatre (Off Broadway). By Dion Boucicault. Music and lyrics by Charlotte Moore. Directed by Moore. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.
The Streets of New York | Photograph: Courtesy Carol Rosegg