Nothing can defeat the spunky Molly Brown - not poverty, hunger, illiteracy or even a sinking ship. She reminds us of her feisty spirit when she sings “till I leave the rear / It’s from the rear you'll hear/ I ain't down yet.” It has taken years, and finally “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” with music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson and original book by Richard Morris from 1960 has returned. Under the helm of director - choreographer Kathleen Marshall and writer Dick Scanlan, the musical has a whole new look. Molly is back, revitalized and high-spirited.
Presented by the Transport Group at the Abrons Arts Center, the musical only includes three lines of dialogue from the original show. All the music in the show is by Wilson but new lyrics were written by Scanlan. In addition, Wilson’s music has been adapted by Michael Rafter.
Margaret, “Call me Molly,” Brown was an actual person who achieved fame as a survivor of the Titanic. Molly earned her nickname because of her activities during the sinking of the Titanic when she tried unsuccessfully to have the lifeboat she was on return for survivors. She was also a social reformer and a feminist and activist, long before it became popular. She was known for her philanthropy and helped establish one the world’s first juvenile courts. Before her involvement, young people were jailed with hardened adult criminals.
The irrepressible Beth Malone (“Fun House”) is delightful and sometimes exhausting as the passionate well-meaning Molly. Malone is vivacious and effervescent; almost a one-note, she rarely wavers. Sinewy and wiry, she is a visual contrast to David Aron Damane who plays J.J. Brown.
The heart of the musical is Molly’s relationship with J.J., the man who becomes her husband. At first theirs is an adversarial relationship, but then the two fall in love. As he courts her, he sings a beautiful song, “I’ll Never Say No To You.” Malone and Damane have wonderful chemistry which is vital to the success of the show. Damane is a big broad man with an imposing presence and a deep beautiful booming baritone. So the sight of JJ flinching when Molly punches him makes the audience laugh.
The revised version takes liberties with Molly’s real story but what remains is the buoyant spirit and liveliness of the character, from when she first barges her way into the hearts of the townspeople and miners of Leadville until she becomes the toast of Europe many years later. Molly tries to become accepted by the society of Denver but along the way makes sure not to forget the people who need help.
In this revitalization, Molly is outspoken, pushing boundaries-even running for political office, going where women don’t traditionally go. She is a feminist who champions the underdog and even pickets against her own husband to allow the workers in his mine to unionize. From the onset of the musical, Molly pushes boundaries, with JJ insisting that she leave, claiming that it’s bad luck to have women at the mines.
Act I is lively and upbeat with well-choreographed dance numbers, but Act II, though shorter, is a bit of a let down. In part it’s because the subject matter gets more somber, given the breakup of the Brown marriage and the tragedy of the Titanic. When the show ends, the characters just walk off the stage and it is anticlimactic.
The Abrons Art Center theater feels like the little theater of a local high school. It only holds a few hundred people and the seats are tight. Although the space is well-utilized with performers often entering and exiting through the side doors and moving through the theater to the stage, it is crowded. Under Marshall, the show feels like it’s bursting at the seams with energy.
The show becomes relevant and topical when Molly argues with an immigration officer about allowing indigent survivors of the Titanic access to this country. There was a scattering of applause in the audience when she talks about the right of immigrants to come to the U.S.
The musical is reminiscent of “Annie Get Your Gun” with a feisty real-life heroine making her way in a man’s world. A new song, “I’d Like To Change Everything About You” reminded me of “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better.)
“The Unsinkable Molly Brown” is a nice mix of the traditional with the modern. Some of the themes seem timely and, even if not, the audience makes it so. The voices are fine, the dancing spirited and Malone is wonderful as Molly.
The show was supposed to end March 22 but has already been extended to April. The Transport Group’s production marks this classic musical’s off-Broadway debut and the first in New York since its Broadway premiere in 1960. Molly is back but she is a new, thoroughly modern Molly.
Abrons Arts Center, Manhattan
opened February 26, 2020 - Running through April 5
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.