2007 Performances to Remember
(Published in Back Stage East - December 27, 2007)

As the year draws to a close, Back Stage East critics look back at the shows they reviewed in these pages to choose the most memorable acting pefromances of 2007. And this is not as easy as you might think. While critics David Sheward and Leonard Jacobs mostly cover the Broadway beat, 20 other critics do their best to review the amazing number of non-Broadway offerings. In 2007, our 22 aisle-sitters reviewed a total of 720 shows. And to quote an email from critic Nancy Ellen Shore, "This assignment was difficult because there were so many memorable performances, even by actors in 'small' roles. For the most part, the level of professionalism and artistry of actors working Off-Off- and Off-Broadway is very high."
So, New York actors, here's to you.

- Erik Haagensen, Reviews Editor

Jillian Louis, Irene (in Concert)
Jillian Louis' title-role performance in Musicals Tonight!'s Irene remains memorable because of what it made us forget. Louis' acting was so convincing that when she sang the score's familiar standards, it was like we'd never heard those songs before, so organically did they emanate from Irene's thoughts and feelings.

- Lisa Jo Sagolla

Irene (In Concert) - April 19, 2007
Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Known for presenting unadorned, script-in-hand, staged concert versions of beloved old Broadway shows, Musicals Tonight! has again hit the nostalgic bull's-eye with its perfectly pruned production of the 1973 reworking of the 1919 musical comedy Irene. Short on overblown choreography and forced vocal pyrotechnics, the performance feels, thankfully, out of sync with today's musical theatre sensibilities.

The production is propelled by Jillian Louis' phenomenal performance as Irene O'Dare, a sharp-minded, gutsy Irish girl from Ninth Avenue who falls in love with Donald Marshall III, a wealthy Long Islander. Louis is so dramatically honest in acting her songs that she makes such standards as "Alice Blue Gown," "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," and "You Made Me Love You" feel like songs we've never heard before.

Under the musical direction of James Stenborg (who also did the vocal arrangements), Irene is extremely well sung, and not only by the leads, who find just the right comic notes and sentimental nuances in their songs, but also by the ensemble, who are given lots of solo singing lines. Capably directed and choreographed by Thomas Sabella-Mills, the show is enriched by the clever casting of Janet Carroll as both Mrs. O'Dare, a beer-guzzling immigrant, and Mrs. Marshall, an old-money snob.

Playing an effeminate fashion designer, Justin Sayre channels Paul Lynde (for some reason) in an over-the-top performance that proves both dazzling and affecting. Though Selby Brown gives a sloppy rendering of Ozzie, Donald's troublesome cousin, Irene's only serious weak link is Patrick Porter, who, as the leading man, unfortunately lacks both romantic appeal and acting ability. Jendi Tarde deserves special mention for the exquisite comedic flair she brings to the small role of Irene's friend Helen.

Working Girl - April 17, 2007
Reviewed by Amy Krivohlavek

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.

Irene · April 18, 2007
Reviewed by Lisa Ferber

If there's one line that describes this show, it's this: "How can a girl from Ninth Avenue in Ninth Avenue clothes conquer the world? Now, you put her in a Fifth Avenue dress. That's something different."

Irene, the 1919 musical with book by Hugh Wheeler and Joseph Stein [written for the 1973 revival], music by Harry Tierney and lyrics by Joseph McCarthy (additional lyrics by Charles Gaynor and Otis Clements), is a perfectly enjoyable evening.

It has the sort of plot worthy of a screwball comedy but presented in such a manner that it is more of a romantic tale of the dreams of young female piano tuner. Irish American Irene O'Dare (Jillian Louis) is a Ninth Avenue girl (translation for the time period: humble) who is sent to tune a piano for Long Island fancypants Donald Marshall lll (Patrick Porter). Irene and her comely friends quickly become models for Marshall's fashion-designer cousin (Selby Brown). The gowns they model are designed by flamboyant artiste Madame Lucy (Justin Sayre). At one point, Irene masquerades as a member of Society and skillfully fools those around.

Now, there isn't a lot of tension in this musical, but it doesn't really matter. Irene's character is not particularly fleshed out, even though there's a song devoted to her. She is basically just taken through the circumstances of her situation, which is fine, though it's hard to root too much for a couple we don't get to know very well. It's not a story that needs this long to be told, either, as there are not enough twists and turns to merit the running time.

This is a large cast of game performers, with songs including the popular "You Made Me Love You." Of particular note is Janet Carroll's vocal performance (Carroll plays Irene's mother, Mrs. O'Dare, and Donald's mother, Mrs. Marshall), in which she caresses each phrase with both vocal acuity and sincere intention.

I must also give mention to Justin Sayre, whose work I'd previously appreciated in Musicals Tonight!'s showing of Shinbone Alley. It seems Sayre is a master at the flamboyant hand-on-hip scene stealer. His performance in this is like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Show meets Paul Lynde (in anything) meets a Cheshire Cat. Sayre seems to love being as big as possible—always appropriately done, and he brings light to the stage every time he appears.

The humor is light, easygoing, and pleasant, with most of the larger comedic moments conveyed by Madame Lucy. Sweet song lyrics include "What do you want to make those eyes at me for / When they don't mean what they say / They make me glad, they make me sad / They make me want a lot of things I've never had." The pace could have been picked up a bit, both in performance and in plot movement, but overall another successful production from Musicals Tonight!

Irene - April 23, 2007
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

As the last entry in its season-wide tribute to song and dance man George S. Irving, Musicals Tonight! has revived the 1973 version of Irene for which Irving won his Tony Award for playing dress designer “Madame Lucy.” Based on the 1919 musical by James Montgomery, Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy, the show had a new book by Hugh Wheeler and Joseph Stein from an adaptation by co-producer Harry Rigby. Seen again after 34 years, the plot is extremely lightweight, like most musicals of the 1919 period, but it features the kind of melodic songs that are classic and no one is able to write anymore. The 1973 version offers such standards as “Alice Blue Gown,” “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and “You Made Me Love You,” beautifully sung by the Musicals Tonight! company.

The flimsy plot is a Cinderella story of Irene O’Dare, a piano tuner from Ninth Avenue who is sent to the Long Island mansion of upper crust Donald Marshall III. Smitten with the ebullient and voluble Irene, Donald agrees to help his cousin Ozzie so that Irene can model fashions by dress designer “ Madame Lucy.” However, this means that Irene and her girl friends Jane and Helen must pose as society women to appear at upper class functions. When the ruse works making them all successful, and Irene discovers she will have to continue to play someone she isn’t, she quits in disgust. The mild-mannered Donald finds the gumption to go after Irene regardless of her humble origins and his mother’s objections.

The 1973 score has quite a musical history. Rigby’s production retained five songs from the original score and commissioned new ones from the teams of Otis Clements and Charles Gaynor, and Jack Lloyd and Wally Harper. In addition, both Gaynor and Harper wrote songs on their own. Another song from original lyricist McCarthy, his 1918 hit with composer James Monaco, “You Made Me Love You” was added to the score. “They Go Wild, Simply Wild Over Me” has a McCarthy lyric to music by Fred Fisher. When Jane Powell replaced Debbie Reynolds in the show’s second year, the McCarthy-Harry Carroll hit, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” was interpolated into the new 1974 Irene. The 2007 Musicals Tonight! concert staging has restored “Worthy of You” from the original 1919 score.

Jillian Louis is a pert, perky and vivacious Irene. She is best in her musical numbers when she stops worrying about maintaining her Irish accent and sings out in her lovely natural voice. Justin Sayre gives an extravagant performance as “Madame Lucy” who uses his talent to bluff his way into society. This is the opposite extreme from his elegantly subdued Tyrone T. Tattersall in Musicals Tonight’s revival of Shinbone Alley last fall. Janet Carroll shows her versatility as both Irene’s and Donald’s mothers, and carries off with aplomb her scene where she has to play both women meeting for the first time.

In the stuffed shirt role of Donald Marshall III, Patrick Porter is stalwart and bland until the final scene when he decides to let loose and go after what he wants. Returning from Musicals Tonight!’s Ernest in Love, Selby Brown is colorful as Donald’s n’er-do-well cousin Ozzie. Jendi Tarde and Katherine McClain are most amusing as Irene’s Ninth Avenue friends given lessons to become high class mannequins. Director/choreographer Thomas Sabella-Mills has done a smashing job with the singing and dancing chorus. James Stenborg’s musical direction keeps the lilting score merrily rolling along.

Sabella-Mills’ production cannot disguise the thinness of the book, but Irene’s musical score is especially lush from beginning to end. The famous songs alone make this a pleasure for the ear. Only the serviceable but ordinary costumes are a disappointment in a show that is about haute couture in 1919.

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