Meredith Wilson's 1960 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown is getting a fresh look at downtown's Abrons Arts Center on Grand Street. Molly Brown was Wilson's second Broadway show after his classic hit The Music Man, which is due on Broadway next fall with Hugh Jackson in the leading role. Molly Brown was never thought of as a musical comedy masterpiece; yet, with the comic spirit of the late Tammy Grimes, it played for 532 performances on Broadway and toured the country for a year. It was made into a popular movie with Debbie Reynolds, which won her an Academy Award nomination. On Broadway, it made Grimes a star, and won her a Tony over Camelot's Julie Andrews, elevating her to Broadway stardom with the likes of Mary Martin, Ethel Merman and Beatrice Lillie.
Grimes was a unique talent who could do a Shakespeare comedy or a Noel Coward play. I saw Grimes' Molly as a teenager on tour in Boston. She gave a grand comic performance and in many ways, Grimes was a great clown like Beatrice Lillie. Her Molly was deliriously funny, strangely touching and always endearing.
Born Molly Tobin in Hannibal, Missouri, Molly somehow found her way to Colorado, married Leadville Johnny Brown (here known as J.J.) and with J.J.'s newly made silver mine money, she made a chase for social acceptance from Denver to Europe and even survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. She became a Denver legend.
That's what the musical's libretto Richard Morris wrote back in 1960. Eleven years ago, writer Dick Scanlan decided to do an entirely different version of Unsinkable Molly Brown with a completely newly plotted book, and use only nine songs from Wilson’s original score, filling in the music gap with a variety of Wilson trunk songs, with new lyrics by Scanlan. Starring Broadway's Kelli O’Hara and Marc Kudish, it played for a summer run in Molly's Denver town. Then, a few years later it played at St. Louis' The Muny, a thousand-seat summer outdoor park theater. Beth Malone was Molly, who had played the adult daughter in the tragi-comic musical Fun Home, which won her a Tony nomination.All three productions have been under the baton of director and choreographer by Kathleen Marshall.
In Scanlan's new book, Molly is not just a social climber. At the beginning she is a hoydenish Annie Oakley, and in the end she gets turned into an elegant big-hearted activist, like Eleanor Roosevelt. There is not a social cause she doesn’t take up: capitalism, unions, women’s rights, immigration. She even finds an ill dog on the Denver streets and takes on animal rights.
Beth Malone is a tall, attractive, accomplished actress who can play drama or comedy or a musical, yet she isn't the great clown Grimes was. She gets to Molly's quirkiness in a different way and gets all the comedy and drama out of the role. When she first meets the miners in Leadville, Colorado, her hair looks like an abandoned bird’s nest and she is a howling banshee of the backwoods, and funny in an odd innocent way. As Molly grows she becomes cheerfully candid, brazenly blunt, and her personality can swing from sweet to low. Wilson's best gives us a chance to see her real singing and dancing skills. Marshall's choreography has her jumping, falling and doing sprawling acrobatics like a country ragamuffin.
Malone bounces through the first half of the show. She is tender and tough in the midst of all the nonsense that Scanlan has puts her through. She does show some tenderness when J.J., played well by David Aron Damane, shows Molly the cabin he has built for her. Then, Molly’s eyes light up as she looks on the brass bed, which until then had been the unattainable goal of all her dreams.
She makes Molly humorous when she mocks the high and mighty nature of Denver’s society, the Sacred Thirty-Six, who once jeered at Molly – all of a sudden, after trips to Europe she glides by like a swan. She sings the sentimental songs in a voice that captures romantic sentimental moments like “I'll Never Say No" or "My Own Brass Bed" and the Act One finale “Are You Sure?”
Malone never stops playing Molly Brown through the show – she is in every scene, some of which are not as entertaining as they should be. She tries to make a mountain of fun from a molehill of sentiment. If Malone weren't such a fine actress, this modest musical would be less than a carnival of fun.
Everyone around her plays effectively enough in an ensemble way, and they sing and move well. I like the original nine songs better than the interloped trunk songs. Joey Chancy conducts an orchestra of nine with finesse.
One funny thing that does happen towards the end of the show has a political year twist. After Molly survives the Titanic, another survivor eyes her on a New York pier. She is being held by an immigration official and will be shipped back to Europe. She pleads for Molly to rescue. Molly of course goes over to the immigration official and gets her released. Then she looks around at all the other immigrants standing around awaiting to be deported and – like Nancy Pelosi during the President’s 2020 State of the Union address – Molly in 1912 tears up the immigrant's file and shouts a political whammy at today's audience, “We Ain’t Down Yet!” as Molly Brown's curtain falls.