Mud Donahue & Son
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
October 3, 2007
A journey vibrantly recorded in letters in the real-life Jack Donahue's book Letters of a Hoofer to His Ma is realized on the stage as an intricate and lively musical dialogue between Jack and his mother, Mud. Mud Donahue & Son is another thoroughly entertaining offering from the New York Musical Theatre Festival and, in just about every way, a pitch-perfect musical.
Jack and his Irish American family lives in the unkind world of poverty, with all the usual trappings: alcoholism, hard labor, non-stop arguments, and dreams of hitting it big. Jack's dream is to become a vaudeville star with his own dance routine. Mud, however, sees vaudeville as "full of people who never meant to be." Without Mud's blessing, but armed with skills and a love of dance that were instilled by her, Jack bravely ventures into the vaudeville world. He starts out on the same bill with seals, frogs, and dogs, and travels through numerous little towns chasing that one big break. This journey is arduous and often heart-aching, but thank to a book by Jeff Hochhauser, music by Bob Johnston, and lyrics by both—along with scintillating performances by the two lone actors—this piece is a study in finding joy and humility in life's every turn.
What an absolute delight this journey turns out to be for one's eyes and ears, and heart too! The banter is witty; the songs, with titles such as "Don't Call Your Sweetheart Up at Two O'Clock in the Morning," are devoid of throw-away lines and sparkle like the best of wines. A series of Mud's confessions, "Oh Bless Me Father," is a must-hear. Mud and Jack's "My Son, I Know" brought tears to my eyes.
Karen Murphy plays Mud with a toughness barely masking the deep love and pride she feels for Jack. A vocal powerhouse, Murphy interprets the hardship and disappointment in life without going for easy bitterness and cynicism. Shonn Wiley's Jack is wide-eyed, optimistic, and so talented that he wins over the audience—vaudeville or anywhere—with deceptively little effort. His tap dancing chops are on fine display here, with credits also as an associate choreographer for the show. Murphy and Wiley have that rarest of chemistry that fills the theatre with warmth and affection. Their fantasy routine as a team, "Mud Donahue & Son," made me wish they'd really put on a duo show on Broadway.
This leads to high praise for director and choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett. On a stage with little room to spare, she makes clever use of props and displays intricate and innovative steps to the lyrics and melody. The show never misses a beat.
The band, playing behind a sheer curtain, and sometimes lit as part of the vaudeville act, is one of the best I have seen in smaller musicals such as this. It is a seamless part of the entire performance, and sounds like a dream. Musical director Doug Oberhamer, sound consultant and engineer Richard Kamerman, bassist Scott Thornton, and drummer Dave Anthony deserve huge applause for giving the piece an amazing soul.
Before the end of Mud Donahue & Son, I was ready to see it again. It also has me yearning for a vaudeville treat. Whether you are looking for a fun time, an artfully realized family drama with thrilling music, or a narrative of a particular time and place that you can really sink your teeth into, this infectious and spirited gem of a musical is not to be missed.