Theatre in Review: New Girl in Town (Irish Repertory Theatre)
Bob Merrill and Eugene O'Neill; for a little while in the 1950s, they made quite a team. O'Neill was dead, of course, but Merrill had a good thing going, turning O'Neill's works into musicals. Take Me Along was quite plausibly based on the sunny family comedy Ah, Wilderness!, but whatever possessed him to make a song and dance show out of Anna Christie?
Because of its provenance, New Girl in Town is one of the oddest musicals of the decade. O'Neill's play is a bottom-of-the-barrel romance, fueled by cheap booze and loaded with dark secrets. The title character is on the run from her past, which includes rape and a stint in a whorehouse; she falls hard for a dumb-lug sailor who can't see her for what she is. Most of the action takes place on a barge, aside from the opening scene, which is set in a seedy saloon on the New York waterfront. There are endless referrals to "dat ol' debbil sea," portrayed as both a healing force and a siren calling men to roam the world. Love it or hate it, it makes for an extremely moody night in the theatre.
Nevertheless, Merrill was joined in this enterprise by a team of major names, including George Abbott, who served as librettist and director; Bob Fosse, who choreographed; and Frederick Brisson, Harold Prince, and Bobby Griffith, who produced. The show was conceived as a showcase for Gwen Verdon, coming off her star-making performance in Damn Yankees, which featured the same creative team listed above. Nobody thought much of New Girl -- Martin Gottfried's Fosse biography, All His Jazz, provides some details on the show's troubled and acrimony-filled tryout -- but it was a hit, running a year before being relegated to the shelf marked "Star Vehicles."
For these reasons, and because it is such a rarity, New Girl in Town is unmissable for musical theatre fans and students of the theatre, especially because it is a perfect example of dark, unruly material being shoved into the standard book musical format of the period. It has many of all the hallmarks of the George Abbott show, including a feeling for turn-of-the-last-century New York, carefully paired couples (romantic and comic), a rather weak and rushed second act, and a big social event (usually some kind of block party) to which the characters can repair and take part in high-stepping dances. Merrill, making a transition from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, was still more the author of such novelty items as "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?" than the more assured musical dramatist that he later became. Most of the best songs in New Girl in Town are scene-setting specialty bits for the chorus, like "Roll Yer Socks Up," and "Sunshine Girl," the latter of which is blessed with an infectious, and slightly insolent, lilt. The big ballads, especially "It's Good to Be Alive," and "If That Was Love," are slightly generic, if unfailingly tuneful; they sound as if they were written with Patti Paige or Rosemany Clooney in mind. Probably the most distinctive number is "On the Farm," in which Anna presents a whitewashed account of her youth, with the seamy details leaking out nonetheless.
Of course, New Girl in Town was a hit for reasons (Verdon; her co-star, Thelma Ritter; Fosse's dances) that are no longer available to us, and, for all its virtues, Charlotte Moore's production has, at best, only modest charms to offer. The show has been slimmed down for the Irish Rep stage, eliminating a few minor characters, moving around a song or two, and eliminating a production number called "There Ain't No Flies on Me." Margaret Loesser Robinson, so amusing as a charmingly unscrupulous English lady in Man and Superman earlier in the summer at Irish Rep, couldn't be more different as Anna, a wised-up, beat-up lady of the streets with a near-medicinal reliance on the whiskey bottle. A competent singer and dancer, she's not the star presence the show needs, however, and her characterization is lacking in much-needed vulnerability. As Matt, the sailor who falls for her at first sight and is enraged to learn that she isn't the lady he imagines, Patrick Cummings puts his big, yet sensitive, voice to good use on numbers like "Did You Close Your Eyes?" and "It's Good to be Alive." If his big scenes with Robinson are missing a certain passion and pathos, blame Abbott's superficial libretto. Cliff Bemis is touching as Chris, Anna's father, who sees his daughter, through a cloud of alcohol, as having a spotless reputation.
The big casting mistake involves Danielle Ferland as Marthy, Chris' live-in girlfriend and drinking partner, whose jealousy of Anna drives much of the action. The part was tailor-made for Thelma Ritter, whose dry way with a wisecrack landed her a supporting-actress Tony Award. Ferland is a skilled comic actress with impeccable musical theatre credits, but she looks far younger than her years. (Ritter was nearly two decades older when she took on the role.) Marthy is a woman with plenty of mileage on her -- to put it politely, she's an old bag -- and Ferland, who clearly lacks the life experience needed, openly struggles with the role, offering a fidgety, one-note performance that robs Marthy of any sympathy and drains the show of most of its humor.
On the plus side, Moore's staging is nicely fluid, making good use of a saxophonist who wanders the stage between scenes. (John Bell's musical direction makes the most of the tiny combo tasked with delivering Merrill's expansive score.) The choreographer, Barry McNabb, manages to insert a couple of surprisingly big numbers on the Irish Rep's tiny stage, blending early 20th-century dance steps into some surprisingly rousing interludes. James Morgan's scenic design wraps the action in a beautifully painted vision of the horizon, and his modular approach allows for remarkably fast scene changes. (A number of projections, of fireworks, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge, are blended unobtrusively into the design.) Mary Jo Dondlinger's lighting and Zachary Williamson's sound design are both solid. China Lee's costumes reflect one of Moore's more surprising decisions: Anna Christie is set in 1912; Abbott moved it back about a decade, reportedly because he thought it allowed for more attractive costumes. Moore shifts it to 1926, a decision that makes all the hand-wringing about Anna's experience with men seem a little overwrought. Also, when the male chorus sings, "In these days when ladies show their ankles/what's there to stop a lad from going simply mad" to a trio of chorines in flapper dresses that leave little to the imagination, you wonder what all the fuss is about.
Anna Christie is preoccupied with the profound need for forgiveness, but one can only imagine O'Neill's reaction to the musical's incredibly sunny finale, an upbeat march populated by reunited lovers and reformed drunkards. It's even harder to imagine what O'Neill, who regularly derided Broadway as "the show shop," would have made of this watered-down cocktail mixed from his eye-opening ingredients. Should you see New Girl in Town? If you love vintage musicals, you'll kick yourself if you don't go; if your interest in theatre is more general, well, you're on your own.--David Barbour