Under the formidable artistic direction of Charlotte Moore, Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre, which is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary season, has developed a specialty practice in recent years of reviving rarely seen musicals based on plays by Irish authors – or that at least have some kind of Irish angle. These have included Take Me Along (based on Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!), Earnest in Love (based on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest), Finian’s Rainbow (the two leading characters are Irish immigrants), even Meet Me in St. Louis (well, the family had an Irish maid).
So it was just a matter of time until the Irish Rep tackled New Girl in Town, Bob Merrill and George Abbott’s 1957 musical based on O’Neill’s Pulitzer-winning 1921 drama Anna Christie, about a former prostitute who returns to the care of her estranged seaman father Chris. She is then courted by Mat, a handsome young sailor, who subsequently rejects her once he learns the truth about her scandalous past.
Sixty-five years since its premiere, the decision to turn Anna Christie into a musical – let alone an upbeat and sanitized musical comedy filled with countless dance breaks – remains absolutely puzzling, which is probably why New Girl in Town is pretty much never revived. Musical theater historians look back on the show mainly as a star vehicle for Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter (who tied for the Tony Award for Best Actress) and the first Broadway score by Merrill, who would go on to write the songs of Carnival! and the lyrics for Funny Girl.
Abbott’s dialogue has been severely edited, and some of the songs have even been shifted around. While Moore may have done this in hopes of creating a more cohesive work, New Girl in Town still feels like a very weak, almost haphazard attempt to turn a dark O’Neill drama into The Pajama Game. It’s also unclear why Moore changed the setting to the 1920s. The original musical was set at the turn of the century, and Anna Christie is set in the 1910s.
But that’s not to say that this is revival lacks charm. Moore’s production manages to make the most of the Irish Rep’s tiny stage and limited production values, with James Morgan’s seaside scenic design covering the walls and a sprightly four-piece band that includes a sexily roaming saxophone player. (Too bad Moore is seemingly constrained to do Irish-themed musicals. I’d love to see her direct Carnival! at the Irish Rep.)
Margaret Loesser Robinson, who also appeared in the Irish Rep’s recent production of Shaw’s Man and Superman, makes for a very sincere and deeply felt Anna. Patrick Cummings is appropriately sexy as Mat, while Cliff Bemis is gruff but quite touching as Chris. But the real winner of the cast is Danielle Ferland (best remembered as the original Little Red in Into the Woods) as Marthy, Chris’ irritable and impatient girlfriend.