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Theatre in Review: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Transport Group/Abrons Arts Center)

David Aron Damane, Beth Malone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Molly Brown is, apparently, so unsinkable that her musical keeps floating back to the surface. The fabulously nouveau riche wife of a Denver mining baron has, over the years, become a classic American character, not least because of her cameo role in the Titanic disaster. Such outsized personalities from history often turn up in musical theatre, where they are allowed to spread out, so to speak. So it is in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which, in this production, has undergone a drastic sea change. That Molly is indomitable is something we are never allowed to forget; the proposition is stated and restated in half a dozen production numbers. This time around, however, she has been sent to a sort of reform school, returning as a vessel of right-thinking opinions. So up-to-date is this revised Molly that you could slip her onto the debate stage with Sanders, Biden, et al., fully expecting her to hold her own. I bet she'd tell them a thing or two.

You may wonder why the people at Transport Group have chosen to revive a moderate hit from the 1960 - 61 Broadway season, which, despite poor reviews, ran a little over a year and is remembered mostly for making a star of leading lady Tammy Grimes. (That it lasted as long as it did was due, in part, to the fact that the score is by Meredith Willson, at the time still red-hot from The Music Man.) The Debbie Reynolds film that followed -- it represented the last gasp of the MGM musical -- kept the title alive a little longer than might have been expected -- and, for a time, it was catnip for the likes of Ruta Lee, Karen Morrow, and Barbara Eden in stock productions. Grimes was known to haul it out from time to time, and Reynolds revived it a quarter-century after the film, with her original leading man, Harve Presnell. Still, it has been a long time since anyone expressed much interest in Molly and her musical; indeed, it seemed fated to fade away, like Destry Rides Again, Do Re Mi, and other nervous hits of the era.

But librettist Dick Scanlan has come up with a new version that so completely reimagines the property that the word "revisal" hardly seems adequate to the occasion. Although Scanlan was a friend and collaborator of Richard Morris, the original author of the book, he clearly sees that the problem is Molly herself. It has often been said that The Unsinkable Molly Brown is a valiant attempt at lionizing a grasping social climber, who drives her husband, Johnny, to build her a palace and, when she can't crash the gates of Denver society, hightails it to Europe, where she collects aristocrats like Fabergé eggs. By this point, she has left Johnny and their children behind, allowing herself to be chased by a crooning prince who somehow got left out of the cast of Gigi. But she misses Johnny and returns home, ending up in a lifeboat, watching the Titanic go down and singing reprises to raise everyone's spirits.

But don't you worry: Molly -- who, in her unabashed vulgarity and love of all that glitters, might come across today as a girl after Donald Trump's own heart -- has been made into a woman of the people. She helps a poor widow birth her baby, then sticks around, providing childcare. At the mine in Leadville, Colorado, where she spends most of the first act, she gets management and labor to stand together against the gold standard. (We hear so much about this issue, it's a miracle that William Jennings Bryan doesn't show up to deliver his famous "Cross of Gold" speech.) When the economy crashes, she opens a soup kitchen. In Denver, spurned by the snooty "sacred thirty-six" families, she runs another soup kitchen, reforms prostitutes, opens schools, funds college educations, spurs a series of legal reforms, and helps the miners organize a union. She even sparks a change in government policy by telling off an immigration officer at New York's Pier 54. Whatever else you might say about The Unsinkable Molly Brown, it is now the most conscientious musical you've ever seen.

Whether it is a better musical is open to debate. The heavily revised score retains most of the gems, including the brash, irrepressible anthem "I Ain't Down Yet," the yearning ballad "I've Already Started," the wildly exuberant "Belly Up to the Bar, Boys," the eccentric revivalist-style rouser "Are You Sure?," and the lilting "Dolce Far Niente." ("He's My Friend," written for the movie, has also been retained.) If they don't always work as well in new contexts -- "Dolce Far Niente" makes more sense as a marriage proposal than as a transitional scene-setter -- the songs are nevertheless there. Scanlan has also resurrected unused Willson numbers and provided new lyrics to existing ones, sometimes to good effect: "Wait for Me," Molly's new eleven o'clock number, sung while floating in a dinghy on the high seas, is a real beauty. (Michael Rafter is credited with adapting Willson's music; it's probably to his credit that the combination of old and new songs feels so seamless.)

And the production is lucky to have for its Molly the great Beth Malone, who takes command of the stage as easily as other performers exhale. She drives the big production numbers with unfailing energy, lands every laugh to be had, bullies everyone with maximum charm, and whenever she uncorks that lazy, dreamy-eyed smile, it's a moment to treasure. Every time Molly, with her hectoring ways, threatens to become a pain -- which is more than once -- Malone takes a moment to relax, and you love her all over again. It certainly helps that she enjoys real chemistry with David Aron Damane, whose voice is as golden as anything in one of Johnny Brown's mother lodes. The role of Johnny is a bit of a stiff -- Scanlan's revision takes most of the tension out of his marriage to Molly, leaving him with little to do -- but he makes you believe that theirs is a love match.

Still, despite all the rethinking -- and the addition of enough policy positions for several Washington think tanks -- The Unsinkable Molly Brown remains oddly uncompelling. For all her heroic qualities, Molly lacks a center: One minute she is spreading largesse and mulling a run for Congress, the next, she is sucking up to a bunch of catty society matrons or running around European ballrooms; for all the tributes to her fighting spirit, she is oddly reactive, bouncing from one enthusiasm to another like a flibbertigibbet. (As Johnny quite reasonably points out, she is pretty much a flop as a mother.)

In addition, Molly's newly acquired political awareness comes off as pandering: She lectures us about the need to vote, the importance of labor, the humanity of immigrants; you might feel that you are being spoon-fed ideas with which you are already in agreement. And for all the imagination and solid construction Scanlan has brought to the project, this Unsinkable Molly Brown is a palimpsest, a script written on an earlier version, which, from time to time, bleeds through. The pushy, greedy, unruly Molly keeps trying to break through, only to be carefully suppressed by the new, more caring, solidarity-forever version.

Kathleen Marshall has brought a fair amount of Broadway pizzazz to the production, especially in her handling of the big musical numbers. Some of the better staging moments include an exchange of letters, across two continents, between Johnny and Molly in front of a chorus of waltzing European royalty and the appearance of a gaggle of Titanic survivors emerging from the upstage darkness. Among the supporting cast, Whitney Bashor and Omar Lopez-Cepero are solid in the blah roles of married friends of Johnny and Molly, and Paula Leggett-Chase is fun as an icy grande dame who enjoys a little nip now and then. Nikka Graff Lanzarone amuses as the bossy spouse of mining magnate Horace Tabor (a colorless role well-essayed by Michael Halling). CoCo Smith gets plenty of laughs as the Browns' wisecracking maid, a character seemingly transported back to early-twentieth-century Denver from the year 2020.

This is a tough show to render on an Off-Broadway budget, and even if this is the biggest Transit Group production ever, the design aspects are variable. Brett J. Banakis' set is defined by an upstage wall covered with pages from period newspapers and adorned with pictures and other domestic touches; it splits in half when Molly and Johnny head off to Denver. It works well enough, I guess, but it doesn't really suggest the tremendous changes that reshape their lives. Similarly, Sky Switser's costumes are frequently stretched across multiple scenes, situations, and time frames, not always plausibly. (Paul Tazewell designed Molly's gowns, and they are appropriately gorgeous.) Peter Kaczorowski's lighting is solid, as always, and Walter Trarbach's crystalline sound is excellent, aided by Larry Hochman's orchestrations.

As you can probably tell, an enormous amount of effort, some of it effective, has been expended on a show that might not really merit so much loving attention. Having also seen the endlessly revised Mack and Mabel at Encores this week, I wonder about the wisdom of so much relentless picking over of shows from the past -- many of which never really worked in the first place -- in an attempt to force them into relevance for contemporary audiences. If Molly Brown needs this much propping up, she may not be unsinkable after all. -- David Barbour


(26 February 2020)

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