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Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Carol Hickey, Mark Mozingo, and Victoria Huston-Elem.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

There are good reasons that Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, that dynamic duo of the Off-Broadway musical, would probably not be at the top of anyone's list to musicalize John Millington Synge's landmark 1907 play, The Playboy of the Western World. Isn't their style more airy and boisterous than it is sardonic? Don't they prefer their subjects straight-up and straightforward rather than insidious? And doesn't even their more continental works bear the distinct aroma of white-bread America, whereas Synge's isn't just the prototypical modern Irish play but the modern Irish play?

Yes, yes, and yes. But these aren't necessarily impediments to moving the action from County Mayo to our very own South and calling the result Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge, as Mills and Reichel have done for their new Prospect Theater Company show that's playing at 59E59 through May 3. After all, the South - especially in the dreariest Depression days of the early 1930s - is as good a U.S. locale as any. It merely means that Mills and Reichel will need to work extra hard to make the similarities track, adjust their comic sense from clever to biting, and dive deep instead of their usual splashing around in the wading pool. Have they? No, no, and no.

Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge is most appropriately seen as having been inspired by Synge rather than adapted from him. You have the young man, here named Clayton (Mark Mozingo), who attacked and left for dead his abusive father. There's the bar owner, J.M. (Dan Sharkey), who hires him to watch over his daughter Maggie (Victoria Huston-Elem) for a couple of days until she can marry the local religious zealot, Luther (Jeff Edgerton). And of course there's the saucy widow, Hazel (Carol Hickey), and the mysterious man, named Leroy (Scott Wakefield), who also make impromptu appearances - for reasons respectively romantic and retributive - at the worst possible moments.

What you don't get are any of the deeper-running meanings that make The Playboy of the Western World more social commentary than antisocial comedy. Synge took great pleasure in tweaking his countrymen's habits of making mountainous personalities from mole-like nobodies, and paid for it at the work's premiere with riots. There's no danger of that happening on East 59th Street: Mills and Reichel see merely a good story, with vastly simpler characterizations, situations, and (of course) songs that bounce rather than metaphors that burrow. Their approach works on that superficial level, but it doesn't duplicate, illuminate, or expand the original. So although it may succeed as a basic Mills-Reichel team-up, it's less than successful by most other measures.

Mills is operating in his usual, hyper-adaptive musical mode, with a playful and raucous bluegrass-strewn score that captures all the proper sounds (complete with Eli Zoller's band, which comprises players on fiddle, guitar, bass, banjo, and mandolin) but doesn't say much new of its own. There's a foot-stamping opener, the usual assortment of nimbly appointed comedy songs, and even a hoedown chase scene. But individual highlights are few - Clayton and Maggie's tender duet "More to Me" and "A Wanted Man" for a trio of gossipy girls (played, in the John Doyle style, by the boys in the band) come the closest, but are just as forgettable as they are pleasing.

Reichel is not quite in top form, either - as both bookwriter and director she keeps the brightest parts of the show far too sunny to allow the ominous shadows around the fringes to gain the traction they need for certain searing later developments. Plus, the show's rather laborious structure doesn't allow her the room she needs to tweak stone-carved staging conventions, her true forte.

Tate R. Burmeister's cramped high-school saloon set doesn't help much. Nor do the performers, who frequently have trouble making themselves heard above the music, and seldom project more than basic geniality across the footlights. Sharkey brings a straight-faced weight to his portrayal that helps root moonshiner J.M. to the narrative, and Mozingo exploits as much as he can of Clayton's deceptive shallowness. But neither they nor anyone else can make much of the creators' fiercely frothy take on the story.

That said, the show is always interesting to watch and entertaining, if evanescently so. But it seems to enjoy being insignificant and unnecessary in a way that the best Prospect shows, whether written (The Pursuit of Persephone, The Rockae) or produced (The Blue Flower) by this team, never do. The Playboy of the Western World doesn't either, of course. But with Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge, it's ultimately less important that Mills and Reichel haven't lived up to Synge than it is that they haven't lived up to their own highest standards.

Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge
Through May 3
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison.
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania

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