Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in the April 27, 1973, issue of National Review under the headline “Irene, Attila, and We.” We are reprinting it to mark Debbie Reynolds’s passing on December 28, 2016.
Garry Wills once managed to write a piece about No, No, Nanette that wound up in an attack on J. Edgar Hoover, which is pretty good going even in the company he keeps these days, but Wills is a bushleaguer compared to the hardcore Nixon-haters. A couple of weeks ago Tricia Cox invited her father to the Washington preview of a new musical. He went, he liked it, and guessed that the show would be a hit, maybe not with New Yorkers but with the “out-of-towners” who are getting tired “of all that far-out stuff.”
Shiver our timbers, Nixon likes it! In most critical circles (not Clive Barnes, to his credit) that was it. Nixon’s “out-of-towners,” wrote Jack Kroll of Newsweek, “is clearly a moral category: Attila the Hun, for example, was an out-of-towner [so, for another example, was Jesus Christ] . . . Irene [the show being reviewed] represents in conception and intent a barbarism older than Attila: the barbarism of naked, impudent commercialism.” And how does this Attilan naked, impudent commercialism show itself? Why “from the show’s very first sound — a banjo — it is shamelessly selling us everything from our father’s mustache to the Sweet Little Alice-Blue Gown that is the most famous of its museum of museum keepsakes.”
Julius Novick of the Village Voice weighs in as ponderously. “As a part of a plan to reshape America,” he starts his review, “President Nixon has recently come out in favor of Irene and capital punishment . . . Since the President has made it [Irene] a political issue [actually he said he thought out-of-towners would like it] it is impossible for me not to be prejudiced against it . . . It is,” he concludes, “the foremost, if perhaps not the first counterrevolutionary musical comedy” and he is utterly aghast at the way “in which the second-night audience — composed as far as I could tell, mostly of real paying customers — adored it. They laughed, they applauded, they had a glorious time.” He backs off, takes another look, and finally solves it: “If you liked Richard Nixon [here’s a put-down to 47 million Americans], you’ll love Irene.” Which is just about the way Jack Kroll handles Irene’s instant popularity: “You sense [Irene] belongs to somebody — yes, to those out-of-towners, those affable Attilas whose moment this is.”
Debbie Reynolds, in her first Broadway show, is still the girl next door, everybody’s sweetheart. She sings and dances her heart out.
But on to Irene, in case any of you Attilas, in town and out, are interested in what this counterrevolutionary musical comedy is all about. It’s 1919 and there’s this spunky little Irish piano tuner who meets a rich and blueblooded bachelor, falls in love with him and makes the jump from Ninth Avenue to Fifth, and, ultimately, from penury as Miss Irene O’Dare to affluence as the future Mrs. Donald Marshall of Westbury, Long Island. Between meeting and final proclamation of love (“You made me love you / I didn’t want to do it, / I didn’t want to do it”), there are vicissitudes and misunderstandings, as is customary, in musicals, and, as is also customary in musicals, lots of songs and dances; and, as has not been so customary in musicals lately, they are songs you can sing along with and dances you can swing along with.
Debbie Reynolds, in her first Broadway show, is still the girl next door, everybody’s sweetheart. She sings and dances her heart out. The voice could be a bit stronger, but the enthusiasm is infectious; she injects beat and pace and a double-dip of charm into the show. There is also a healthy measure of clowning by Patsy Kelly as Irene’s good-hearted, beer-drinking, suspicious Irish mother. Sophisticated Patsy Kelly isn’t; subtle Patsy Kelly isn’t, but funny yes: Patsy Kelly dressed to the nines in layers of pink and blue organdy, ostrich feathers waving in her hair, refusing the posh Mrs. Marshall senior’s offer of champagne (“champagne comes back on me”), or taking an incredulous look at Irene’s two Ninth Avenue cronies, now transformed into fashion models sweeping by in gold and silver lamé sheaths (“My God, you look like a couple of lamps”). George Irving, a comic along Billy de Wolfe lines, milks the last drop of humor out of a lush role as Madame Lucy, a couturier on the make.
The cast is good but what makes the show is — well — the show. Harry Rigby who put together No, No, Nanette a couple of seasons back has lost none of his expertise. The first-rate choreography we’ve come to take for granted from Peter Gennaro (Fiorello, West Side Story, The Unsinkable Molly Brown) includes, among a half-dozen other big numbers, a joyful romp in the O’Dare music store that culminates with the entire male chorus line and Debbie Reynolds dancing in and around and finally on top of four furiously playing pianolas. Raoul Pene duBois has come up with lavish costumes, slightly camped up, and beautiful, imaginative sets that move the cast from Ninth Avenue street scenes to garden parties in Long Island, from Madame Lucy’s swish fashion establishment to an arched-and-columned, lavender-and-blue ballroom.
If you’re looking for a message, counterrevolutionary or other, in Irene, skip it; if you’re looking for an evening of light-hearted fun, take it in. It’s not the best show of the century, not by a long shot, but it may well be the best musical to have hit Broadway since September. (And please, before Mr. Nixon confesses to liking another show, won’t someone, somewhere, introduce Mr. Kroll and his editor at Newsweek to the real Mr. Hun.)