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New Girl in Town

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Margaret Loesser Robinson, Patrick Cummings, and Cliff Bemis.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

To the extent that the 1957 musical New Girl in Town is remembered today, it's for three things: as being the first true star vehicle for Gwen Verdon, following up her success in Damn Yankees; as the first theatre score written by pop composer Bob Merrill; and for a scandalous second-act ballet by choreographer Bob Fosse that was cut out of town, bringing too-vivid life to the central character's lady-of-the-evening past. Few regard the show as a classic—its one-year run hints at assimilation problems even at the time—and there have been few calls for revivals, whether at Encores! or anywhere else.

The Irish Repertory Theatre's new mounting of the musical is unlikely to turn around its fortunes, though director Charlotte Moore and her cast have put out no shortage of effort. What they've done is what one suspects is the most anyone can do with a title that was always somewhat disposable: play up its relationship to its still-performed source material, Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize–winning 1921 play Anna Christie, and hope for the best. This has meant trimming some songs, rearranging others, and ending on a messy, unfocused note that doesn't send you off satisfied into the evening air.

But the biggest problem is elemental. O'Neill imagined a bleak, take-no-prisoners work set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, in which Anna struggles and largely fails to escape her sordid, brothel-ensconced past with the help of her estranged father Chris and a sailor she romances named Mat. Merrill and his librettist-director George Abbott were more musical-comedy men, and certainly had a kindred spirit in their star, which meant that the traditionally styled social tragedy was never a possibility, and that more frivolity at least the promise of a happy (or happier) ending were a given.

Unfortunately, the setup and most of its execution prevent that approach from completely jelling. Anna Christie holds together because it and its characters acknowledge and, to some degree, accept their hopelessness. In New Girl in Town, everyone recognizes that they possess the potential for transformation and redemption, which would be the basis for an uplifting revamp if the hard-bitten setting and apocalyptic personal histories didn't suggest these people had snuffed out their own innate optimism years before we first lay eyes on them.

This is, in other words, a classic case of an adaptation that didn't either didn't adapt enough or adapted the wrong things (Chris's boozy wife, Marthy, has been upgraded from a one-off bit to a major presence; her originator, Thelma Ritter, so scored with it that she shared the Best Actress in a Musical Tony with Verdon) receiving a revival unwilling or unable to take the chances the original did. It would be difficult for any show to thrive under those circumstances, so the results at the Irish Rep are unavoidably middling, if never remotely unpleasant.

Merrill's songs, if not yet as theatrically developed as those he would later write for Take Me Along, Carnival, and especially Funny Girl do charm, and good luck evicting from your head the saucy opening number "Roll Yer Socks Up," the ballads "Look at 'Er" and "Did You Close Your Eyes?", and the jaunty (and endlessly repeated) "Sunshine Girl." (The peppy four-piece band is led by John Bell.) Abbott's reduction of the play is, like most of his books, efficient and enjoyable, though seldom inspired on its own terms. The heavily reduced choreography (by Barry McNabb), dive bar–inspired set (James Morgan), costumes (China Lee), and lights (Mary Jo Dondlinger) are predictably downscale, but do sufficiently establish the time, place, and economic conditions under which the story operates.

The saving graces here are the firmly committed Moore and her cast, who pursue their work with the fervor of a dedicated O'Neill troupe. Margaret Loesser Robinson is a magnetic Anna, at once buoyant and broken, and possessing an attractively earthy singing voice that's at once refined and rough-edged. She has real chemistry with Patrick Cummings, who plays Mat as though he has plenty of his own demons to leave behind him, making them the right match for the wrong reasons. Cliff Bemis effectively blends fatherly concern in ways both caring and judgmental as Chris; as Marthy, Danielle Ferland is amusing if never exactly raucous.

Much the same is true of New Girl in Town itself. Although one suspects this production might be marginally more invigorating if it were allowed to fizz in line with the original, Anna and Mat will only ever organically step so high and beam so brightly. O'Neill realized that, for them, there are no concrete, comfortable answers, and that's something that no infusions of singing, dancing, or joking can ever easily change.

New Girl In Town
Through September 9
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
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