Reviewed by EUGENE PAUL
If you’ve wistfully wondered or even yearned for those good old Broadway musicals, it behooves you to hie yourself down to the surprisingly comforting Abrons Arts Center where a brisk, kickass production by award winning big name Broadway pros is pouring it on for a new shot at Meredith Willson’s sixty year old hit, the adorable The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Yes, that Molly Brown, the real one, 1867-1932, the survivor of the Titanic, that rich bitch who saved a boadload of survivors. And got hassled for it. Which Book writer Dick Scanlan thought ought to figure in his new book for the show. And there it is, right up front.
But nothing and nobody is more up front than Molly, especially the new Molly (extraordinary, endearing, delightful Beth Malone). Back in the day, charmer Tammy Grimes won a Tony playing Molly. Debbie Reynolds won an Oscar nomination. That was when Molly was a Me Me Me gal, all about her. Now, she’s got more fire in her belly making her care about others, too. And it takes a fire in the belly carer to bring her fully to life. Beth Malone in spades. Sings, dances, acts up a storm, cartwheels, and—relates. She listens. She gives and takes. She’s that warm glow at the center of the show.
Which is a blessing because everybody gives that much more, in a show still in these redeveloping stages, trying scenes, shuffling songs, expanding performances, discovering gems among the wonderful company, giving them their times to shine, hustling, hustling, getting closer every day to that uptown move. The back story on this adventure is worth its own weight in gold. After unsinkable Molly’s castigation in the Titanic investigations prologue we flash thirty years back to Leadville.
Where young Molly Tobin arrives without book learning but full of fun and persistence, inevitably charming her way into the heart of this rough, mining town, determined to get herself a husband, a rich husband in order to fulfill her dream of sashaying big time in her own big house in that big city, Denver. There’s plenty of men to choose from but the richest one was already hitched. Still, there was that book readin’ mine manager, J.J. Brown.( stolid, wonderful voiced David Aron Damane). He never knew what hit him. It wasn’t too long before he was proposing. And to clinch the deal, he had an extra special surprise: A great big shiny brass bed. And a song to go with it: “My Own Brass Bed”.
Meredith Willson’s songs, adapted by Michael Rafter, are studded throughout the show, splendidly, briskly played by an enthusiastic orchestra conducted by Joey Chancey, all Broadway panache in Larry Hochman’s orchestrations. They are meat and drink for director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall and her giving company of dancers.. It’s an interesting mix: several are never before heard out of the trunk Willson songs as well as eight from the original Broadway show including the one you’ve known for decades and decades “I Ain’t Down Yet”.(That’s the one Sonny Fox used as his theme for his long running childrens’ show, “Wonderama”. All the kids knew it). Naturally, Marshall treats all the songs as if they were top drawer.
She has a much broader palette this time around, allowing her really fine company to portray a much wider picture of Americans in the making, from plain folks to snobs, in a whole range of accents, colors, sizes. So many of them catch the light: lovely voiced Whitney Bashor as a new immigrant Julia, the wonderful trio of miner friends, Erich (Alex Gibson), Vincenzo (Omar Lopez-Cepero) and Arthur (Paolo Montalban),snooty Louise Sneed-Hill (Paula Leggett Chase), hilarious Mary Nevin (Coco Smith), fetching Baby Doe (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) winning Maud( Shina Ann Morris),so many more, even as the show is all Molly’s and J.J.’s, although Damane is still getting his sea legs. But that’s an easy fix.
Brett J. Banakis makes settings magic on the compact Abrons stage, and Sky Switser stretches a costume budget to the point of translucency. Lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski is a vital component adding to the good feelings surrounding the show. Unsinkable.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown. At the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street. Tickets: $65-$85. 866-811-4111. 2 hr2 30 min. Thru Apr 5.
Beth Malone is the wonderful warm heart at the center of Molly Brown’s saga, bumpkin to grande dame.