Beth Malone (Tony nominated for her role of the adult Alison in Fun House) is a bundle of energy in the title role of the revisal of Meredith Willson’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown. In a role that won Tammy Grimes her first Tony, Malone has unlimited spirit, vitality and verve. She is a show unto herself and one reason for seeing the new production. The other is that this show has not been revived in New York since the original Broadway production in 1960.
However, this is not the vehicle that Grimes appeared in. Attempting to make the plot less hokey and a little bit more up to date as to women’s roles, Richard Morris’ original book based on the real life Margaret (“Call Me Molly”) Tobin Brown (1867– 1932) has been completely rewritten by Dick Scanlan (only three lines from the previous version are included) and uses a little less than half of Willson’s songs from the original Broadway version, with some new numbers taken from Willson trunk songs and with lyrics tweaked by Scanlan, and others with entirely new lyrics by Scanlan to Willson melodies. In addition, “He’s My Friend,” written for the 1964 film version with Debbie Reynolds, has been included.
Although director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall has given the Transport Group production staged at The Abrons Arts Center a rousing production, the major problem still exists with the story: Molly goes from tomboy to wife to social activist but always seems to be the same. Basically Malone changes her outfits (costumes by Sky Switser) and becomes more mature and more sophisticated but never really changes from the girl at heart who wants riches and gaudy things. Costar David Aron Damane, with his powerful baritone, who plays J.J. Brown, the miner who strikes it rich and proceeds to give Molly almost everything she wants, helps a good deal but their love story is not made entirely believable, possibly because the stalwart Damane is still made to be a very retiring hero, a man of few words.
If the idea was to make this Molly Brown more accurate to the true story, Scanlan’s version perpetuates as many myths as Morris’ 1960 version. However, Malone and Scanlan’s Molly is a modern feminist. The 2020 version (which tried out in Denver in 2014 after a staged reading as early as 2009) frames the story with the sinking of the Titantic which is how Molly Brown got her famous nickname. After we see Molly before a 1912 Senate investigation into the claims of malfeasance on the part of the crew, we see Molly in flashback arrive in the silver mining town of Leadville, Colorado, in 1886, on the way to Denver, for her the height of Western culture and civilization. After being told that it is not possible to walk over the mountains in the winter, she has her run-in with the foreman, J.J. (Johnny) Brown).
When miner William Gerrard is killed in a mine explosion, Molly goes to live with his pregnant English wife Julia – at least until the season changes – and is taught to read and write by Julia, a former teacher. Little does Molly know that the reticent Johnny has fallen in love with her, until he shows her the red dress, brass bed and books she wanted that he has bought for her. She marries him on the condition that they will someday move to Denver. When the U.S. moves onto the gold standard and away from silver, Johnny comes up with a safe method to mine gold and becomes a millionaire many times over.
Molly and Johnny move to Denver and renovate one of the biggest mansions on the best street, but they find they are shut out of the “sacred 36,” the elite of Denver society. As she waits to break into their ranks, Molly instead becomes involved in social activism opening a soup kitchen, a juvenile detention center, and an animal pound, none of which existed before in Denver. At the same time as planning on running for Congress, Molly becomes involved with a strike for a union at Johnny’s mine back in Leadville, which leads her husband to stray, and they separate, squashing her congressional aspirations. Molly travels to Europe to gain culture where she is wooed by a British, an Italian and a French nobleman. When she hears that Johnny has had a stroke she books passage on the newest and fastest ship out of Europe, the Titanic, in order to return to America hoping to be reconciled with him before it is too late.
While the new version substitutes similar events for those in the Richard Morris book, the new ones are in fact variations on them. Instead of the disastrous party for Mrs. McClone and the sacred 36, we meet the real life Louise Sneed-Hill in an amusing tea party in which a great deal of whiskey in the doctored tea breaks the ice. The best songs in the show remain the iconic “I Ain’t Down Yet,” “I’ve A’ready Started In,” “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” and “My Own Brass Bed” from the first act of the original score. With the music adapted by Michael Rafter, the new songs seem to lack the marching band rhythms of Willson’s most famous numbers and Scanlan’s lyrics are much more prosaic than anything Willson ever offered in his Broadway shows. The minor plot devices always appear to have threesomes of characters which become rather repetitive.
Nevertheless, the cast makes more of the material than is on paper. In addition to Malone and Damane’s star making performances, much of the rest of the cast need honorable mention. Whitney Bashor as Julia is a proper, civilizing influence on Molly, while Paula Leggett Chase as snobbish Louise Sneed-Hill and Nikka Graff Lanzarone as forceful Baby Doe Tabor, wife of Horace Tabor of mining fame, are equally memorable. As Johnny’s three best friends Alex Gibson, Omar Lopez-Cepero, and Paolo Montalban as Vincenzo, Erich and Arthur give able support as the miners who eventually break with him on the idea of a union. Coco Smith as Molly’s maid Mary Nevin is as feisty as she is and equally feminist.
Brett J. Banakis’ unit set with period newspaper front pages and framed photographs on the back wall seen almost all of the time is serviceable but not very attractive. The lighting by Peter Kaczorowski adds a good deal of color to the various sequences. Switser’s color-coordinated period costumes are eye filling although Molly always seems uncomfortable in whatever she is wearing, aside from her sequined red gown by Paul Tazewell. Water Trarbach’s sound design allows all of the words to be crystal clear aside from foreign accents. Although the show’s orchestra conducted by Joey Chancey includes nine musicians the sound leaves something to be desired considering what we expect from the composer of The Music Man.
Kathleen Marshall’s production of the new Unsinkable Molly Brown is an interesting attempt to resurrect a musical that appeared to be a lost proposition. While the new version creates its own problems, it does give us a chance to evaluate the material for the first time in 60 years. It also gives Beth Malone as the irrepressible heroine and David Aron Damane as her intrepid husband the roles of a lifetime. The supporting cast is up to the challenge of keeping up with them. The new Unsinkable Molly Brown is an entertaining, if still old-fashioned musical comedy entertainment.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (through March 15, 2020)
The Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.transportgroup.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission