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The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 26, 2020

Beth Malone and Cast
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Audience members (including this one) who are only familiar with The Unsinkable Molly Brown from the 1960 original Broadway cast recording featuring Tammy Grimes, and the 1964 film version with Debbie Reynolds, will scarcely recognize the feisty heroine in the Transport Group's current production. Now playing at the Abrons Arts Center, Meredith Willson's musical has gotten a complete makeover with a new book by Dick Scanlan and new songs (many with new lyrics by Scanlan) from Willson's catalogue. In a jarring and sometimes jaw-dropping transformation, Molly has been reimagined with a 2020 sensibility. She not only ain't down yet, but the plucky Coloradan tomboy is now a super-woke combination of Annie Oakley, Emma Goldman, and Elizabeth Warren all rolled into one.

Although the revised book (and I am hesitant to use the word "revival") claims to be based on the original by Richard Morris, the press materials state that all of the characters except Molly are fresh creations (and even Molly's husband, Johnny Brown in the original, is now J.J. Brown). The two versions, according to the description, "share three lines of dialogue."

Most definitely one of those lines is not the statement uttered by a senator in the musical's opening and which received hearty and appreciative applause the night I attended. Molly (Beth Malone), a survivor of the Titanic, is testifying before the Senate about the heartless and inexcusable actions taken by a sexist male crew member commandeering a lifeboat. After she refuses to tamp down her enraged response to the committee of senators, one of them fires back, "You have been warned, nevertheless you persist."

As is evident from the musical's prologue, 2020 Molly is no longer content to simply hobnob with the upper-crust snobs of Denver and the decorated aristocrats of Europe as her 1960s predecessor was. This Molly has her eyes on much larger causes, such as running for congress, organizing unions, and fighting for immigration reform. As a result, the musical buoyancy tends to sag under the weight of so much social and political consciousness.

At the center of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, however, is the inevitable and indomitable relationship of Margaret "Call-Me-Molly" Tobin and J.J. Brown (David Aron Damane). Molly, possessing a fierce independent spirit, and J.J., resolute in his masculine pride, are akin to Annie Oakley and Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun. They even have a new song (with music by Willson and lyric by Scanlan) called "I'd Like to Change Everything About You" that is similar in spirit to Irving Berlin's "Anything You Can Do."

Scanlan has surrounded the sparring lovers with a trio of immigrant miners, including one from Germany (Alex Gibson), Italy (Omar Lopez-Cepero), and China (Paolo Montalban), as well as the miners' tightfisted boss Horace Tabor (Michael Halling). The story incorporates a subplot around a young widow, Julia (Whitney Bashor), who is instrumental in bringing Molly and J.J. together.

David Aron Damane and Beth Malone
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Under Kathleen Marshall's direction and choreography, the plot-heavy show never really lifts off the ground. As Molly, Malone is very good, and having only seen her in Ring of Fire, Fun Home, and Angels in America, I was not aware of her exquisite Broadway belt and expert comic timing. As fine as she is as a musical performer, though, she does not have the natural effervescence of Debbie Reynolds (who was nominated for an Oscar in the lead actress category) or the lovable eccentricity of Tammy Grimes (who won the Tony in the featured actress category). As J.J., Damane is grounded and austere, and while the pair make beautiful music together, these Browns do not elicit musical-comedy chemistry.

In general, the sixteen-member company perform Willson's songs effectively, especially the two standards from the original version, "I Ain't Down Yet" and "Belly Up to the Bar, Boys." The latter number calls for thrilling choreography, and while Marshall's choreography evokes comparisons to Michael Kidd's dances for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, it does not pack nearly the thrill. A can-can number in the second act fares only marginally better.

Among some of the welcome musical additions to the score (Joey Chancey is the music director and Larry Hochman did the notable orchestrations) are the lovely "He's My Friend" from the film and a rousing "Share the Luck," which was written for the Red Cross (and bolstered with new choruses by Scanlan). Much of the score, alas, is merely serviceable.

The production's design does not help in brightening the proceedings. The back wall is plastered with yellowing newspapers and period framed photos. Instead of establishing the frontier setting, Brett J. Banakis's scenic design gives the impression of a fusty old basement. With the aid of Peter Kaczorowski's golden lighting, the second act, which mostly takes place in Denver, offers the playing space a little more air and openness. This is achieved by raising the top half of the backdrop to create a mountain skyline. (Maria Björnson achieved a similar effect in the original production of Aspects of Love.) Sky Switser's costumes (particularly in the women's period frocks) provide necessary and appreciated dashes of color.

Willson's The Unsinkable Molly Brown has never been considered a musical gem of Broadway's golden age, and it pales in comparison with the composer/lyricist's near-perfect The Music Man. Sadly, the 2020 version, which should be called Willson and Scanlan's The Unsinkable Molly Brown, no matter how fervently it persists, does not raise the show in artistic merit.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Through March 22, 2020
Transport Group, Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, New York
Tickets online and current performance schedule: