If you are a fan of musical theatre, than you will certainly find a lot of things to like about Marriott Theatre's world premier of The Bowery Boys. The show which weaves together characters conceived by Horatio Alger, Jr. and songs inspired by George M. Cohan is much like a musical alphabet soup; if you like it, it's in there. Borrowing heavily on its predecessors, Oliver, Annie, Les Miserables and even Yentl, The Bowery Boys certainly has the potential of becoming a great musical but to do so, needs to find its own voice and rhythm.
The story follows Alger mainstay, shoeshine impresario and street-wise kid, Dick Hunter who befriends a young British heiress, Mary, after she is abandoned in the Bowery of New York City in 1876. In a makeover that would make Barbara Streisand jealous, Mary dons the guise of Faz-Dick (don't ask) and is introduced to the rest of the adolescent male shoeshine clan. During the next two hours, the boys solve a murder mystery, become Wall Street shoeshine tycoons, topple political corruption that makes pay to play seem tame, and reunites Mary with her family (using Annie's locket... ooops, I mean a locket). All this is done while under the watchful moral compass of Dick, who teaches his flock the virtues of hard, honest work which is at the center of Alger's writings.
The Bowery Boys is the love child of director David H. Bell, who also wrote the book and scribed the lyrics. Bell's respect and knowledge of Alger's concepts is borne out with one of the best directed shows Marriott has presented in years. The action moves flawlessly and the main characters, Dick and Mary are flushed out in a way that is not embellished or saccharine. Jeremy Cohen's pop score somehow fits the retro piece much like Frank Wildhorne's score for Jekyll & Hyde, though the numbers that work the best are the ones that truly meld with George M. Cohan's songs, such as "Mary" and "The American Ragtime". Suffice to say that "Say Goodbye/You Remind Me of My Mother" is one of the best trios written of late. As usual, Michael Mahler's musical direction is magnificent and has vocally arranged the complex score with some great harmonies and choral numbers. Matt Raftery's choreography is quite ambitious, with the Boys opening number reminiscent of the soccer players' athleticism in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Beautiful Game with a slight nod to Riverdance.
What makes The Bowery Boys a must see are the performances of the lead actors, Brian Sears and Morgan Weed. As Dick Hunter, Sears is instantly engaging, with a childlike wit and wisdom and a lyric tenor voice that is currently unequalled on the Chicago stage. Sears brings Alger's character to life in a way that surely would make his creator proud. Ms. Weed, who was terrific in last years Little Women, raises the bar and gives a studied and deliberate performance as Mary. Her angst and emotional center can be seen in her eyes, and when she locks in with Sears, there is a chemistry that must be seen to be appreciated.
The chorus of Boys is also first rate, including great performances by Andrew Keltz, Wilson Bridges, Max Quinlin, Peyton Royal and Andrew Redlawk. For the adults, Bernie Yvon shows his true breadth as an actor, where he gives an engaging and dare I say evil performance as John. Lesley Bevan is quite sinister as the plot wheedling Nanny Mae, yet becomes less believable when she channels Dorothy Loudon's red headed foil.
This is the second time this decade that Alger's character has been turned into a musical. The first was in 2001 with Shine! which also focused its main character on Dick Hunter and featured a book by Richard Seff and lyrics by Lee Goldsmith and music Roger Anderson. What The Bowery Boys suffers from is its own lack of identity as it tries to be too many things to please the masses. Boys works best when it is takes itself seriously and doesn't veer off into comic book territory. The complex plot is worthy of straight on performances, and not tongue in cheek characters as some become during the course of the show. The musical numbers do nothing to advance the plot and at times stop the action cold as in the almost laughable "C'mon Boys" in the second act. All that said, this is a worthy musical in its infancy. Once The Bowery Boys grows up and finds a voice of its own then it will have a worthy place alongside its predecessors, rather than in their shadow.
The Bowery Boys plays through February 15, 2009 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, to reserve tickets, please call the box office at 847.634.0200 or visit www.marriotttheatre.com.