The 19th-century playwright Dion Boucicault cut an uncommonly colorful figure — prodigal, voracious, cavalier. As an author of theatrical hits on both sides of the Atlantic, he made assorted fortunes and lost them reliably, while his romantic life was the stuff of drama, and occasionally farce.
One of the earliest headlines about him in The New York Times, in 1863, was the simple “Dion Boucicault in Trouble.” A lawsuit said that the married playwright had locked himself in the London bedroom of an unwitting colonel during a midnight visit to an actress whose estranged husband was in hot pursuit.
Scandal, riches, penury — the Dublin-born Boucicault knew each of those states from the inside, and was brilliant at weaving them into luridly entertaining melodramas. Two decades ago, Charlotte Moore, the artistic director of Irish Repertory Theater, adapted one of those plays, “The Poor of New York,” into a sweetly funny confection of a musical, “The Streets of New York,” now enjoying a charmer of a revival on the company’s main stage.
Directed by Moore on an agile, stylized set by Hugh Landwehr, it’s a pleasurable escape, for a tuneful two-plus hours, into a quasi-cartoon version of old New York, where the virtuous struggle and the villainous thrive. You know in your bones, because this is melodrama, that a comeuppance for the bad guys is inevitable — just as soon as a slip of paper, long missing from its rightful owners, reappears.
“The Streets of New York” begins in 1837, on the eve of a financial panic, as the scoundrel banker Gideon Bloodgood (David Hess) prepares to abscond from New York with a fortune and let his depositors suffer the consequences. Enter Patrick Fairweather (Daniel J. Maldonado), a sea captain eager to entrust his $100,000 to Bloodgood. The receipt for that transaction, stolen by Bloodgood’s wily clerk, Brendan Badger (Justin Keyes), is the slip of paper in question.
The plot soon leaps forward 20 years to find the captain’s widow, Susan (Amy Bodnar), and grown children, Lucy (DeLaney Westfall) and Paul (Ryan Vona), in desperate straits in a tightfisted economy. But the merciless Bloodgood and his spoiled-from-the-cradle daughter, Alida (Amanda Jane Cooper, delightfully comic in the show’s best role), are flourishing.
So is romantic longing. Will the handsome, down-on-his-luck scion Mark Livingston (Ben Jacoby) end up with Lucy, his true love, or will the scheming Alida ensnare him? Will Paul and the sharpshooter Dixie Puffy (a terrific Jordan Tyson) — who sings of wanting to “hold his hand, touch his skin, kiss his lips, rip his shirt off” — ever figure out that their ferocious crush is mutual?
Moore injects plenty of playful effervescence into the show’s tension — particularly in Alida’s exuberant numbers, “Oh How I Love Being Rich” and “Bad Boys,” and her dripping-with-decadence dresses. (The choreography is by Barry McNabb; the costumes are by Linda Fisher.)
For the most part, the show deftly balances dark and light even as it retains Boucicault’s social critique of the rich nonchalantly crushing the poor. But the ending teeters into treacle with would-be uplift aimed at the audience, which feels out of joint with the rest.
That is a minor point, though, in a production that is otherwise wonderfully done. With a lovely aural depth provided by an orchestra of cello, woodwinds, harp, bass and violin (directed, at the performance I saw, by Ed Goldschneider), this is an old-fashioned, get-your-mind-off-things kind of show.
Grab your vaccine card, put on a good mask and go.
The Streets of New York
Through Jan. 30 at the Irish Repertory Theater, Manhattan; irishrep.org. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.