For more than 25 years, City Center subscribers begged and pleaded for an Encores! production of Jerry Herman’s Mack & Mabel (which they finally just got). On the other hand, I am hard-pressed to think of anyone (at least anyone I know) who has ever expressed an interest in a new production – be it Encores!, Broadway, regional theater or summer stock – of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Meredith Willson’s 1960 musical comedy/biography about the nouveau riche turn of the century socialite, philanthropist and Titanic survivor.
Molly Brown was memorialized in a 1964 film version starring a screeching Debbie Reynolds and Harvey Presnell (who costarred in the Broadway production opposite Tammy Grimes). To put it bluntly, when it comes to quality, Molly Brown is not exactly The Music Man – even though Molly does engage in some rhythmic patter in “I Ain’t Down Yet.” It is a relatively simple Americana romance in which the title character longs for money and acceptance from high society and eventually realizes that high society is full of vacuous snobs and returns to husband and home. It is not unlike a poor man’s Annie Get Your Gun – though it's certainly far preferable to Here’s Love, Willson’s final, little-remembered Broadway musical based on Miracle on 34th Street.
About a decade ago, rumors began to surface that lyricist and book-writer Dick Scanlan (who successfully remade Thoroughly Modern Millie from a little-liked film musical into a clunky but enjoyable musical comedy) was at work on a major rehaul/revisal of Molly Brown, with a new book and new songs (with music by Willson set to lyrics by Scanlan). At one time, it was being eyed as a star vehicle for Reba McEntire (who has not returned to Broadway since Annie Get Your Gun). At another, it was expected to be produced on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company.
Neither a new musical nor a revival, the revisal is a problematic, rarely successful category of contemporary musical theater. Unlike the new trend on Broadway having experimental directors like Ivo van Hove and Daniel Fish taking whacks at classics like West Side Story and Oklahoma!, revisals involve rewriting the books and editing the scores of dated musicals such as Girl Crazy (which was remade into the thoroughly delightful Crazy for You), Flower Drum Song, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Pal Joey, Cinderella and Annie Get Your Gun.
After debuting at the Muny in St. Louis in 2017, the new – but not exactly improved – Molly Brown is receiving its New York debut in an Off-Broadway production by the Transport Group at the Abrons Arts Center, a historic venue on the Lower East Side that is beautiful but very difficult to travel to. (Even going from Midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn Academy of Music is easier than getting to the Abrons Arts Center.) Given that the Transport Group recently presented a terrific, faithful revival of Once Upon a Mattress starring Jackie Hoffman at the same space, my hopes were high for Molly Brown. Starring in the title role is Beth Malone, who played adult Alison in Fun Home. Serving as director and choreographer is Kathleen Marshall, whose Broadway credits include revivals of other traditional musical comedies such as Wonderful Town and The Pajama Game.
While a new production of the original Molly Brown might have made for some insubstantial but breezy entertainment, the revisal Molly Brown is an unwieldy, plot-heavy mess that tries to reframe the title character as a hero of first wave feminism and delve into various historical and current cultural issues (including immigration, women in political office, unionization and adultery) while still trying to stick to the original plot structure (girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl returns to boy) and include the score’s best-remembered songs.
Brown’s experience on the Titanic takes on extended emphasis in the new script. It opens with Brown appearing before a group of condescending men at a government hearing, going over her experience on the ship and in her lifeboat. (In the production’s most captivating moment, Malone makes a superfast wardrobe change to flash back to her former self as a poor hick.) Upon entering the theater, audience members receive cards identifying different Titanic survivors. And for a dramatic finish, Brown argues with an immigration official who is on the verge of deporting various Titanic survivors. This all had the effect of making me eager for a revival of Maury Yeston’s Tony-winning Titanic musical.
Marshall adds folksy dance choreography here and there, but it makes little impact on the production as a whole. Malone gives a spunky lead performance showing that she can be just as successful in a musical comedy as in serious drama. As love interest J.J. Brown, David Aron Damane is hindered by how the character has been awkwardly changed from a bright and proud woodsman to a sad-sack business manager. Other featured cast members, including Whitney Bashor and Paolo Montalban, are weighed down by superficial characterizations and bad dialogue.