The Unsinkable Molly Brown
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Theater review by Raven Snook
How do you solve a problem like Molly Brown? Meredith Willson’s 1960 follow-up to his hit The Music Man was a successful Broadway musical and the inspiration for a splashy 1964 movie with Debbie Reynolds. But this tale of real-life socialite, social activist and Titanic survivor Margaret Brown has never been revived in New York City (not even by Encores!) because of Richard Morris’s book, which flattened the title character into a plucky but lovesick woman-child. Enter Dick Scanlan with a lifeboat. Having already salvaged another Morris property, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Scanlan has now spent years rewriting The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Only three lines of Morris’s dialogue remain; characters have been invented or cut, lyrics have been changed, and songs from elsewhere in Willson’s catalog have been added. The result is a thoroughly modern Molly: a feminist-forward revisal that, though not always a pleasure cruise, is a welcome improvement on the original.
The narrative still hangs on the volatile love story between Molly (a smashing Beth Malone) and her husband, JJ (stalwart baritone David Aron Damane), who strikes it rich in mining in late-19th-century Colorado. But Scanlan gives the couple a more colorful courtship and community; he also nods to many of Molly’s impressive accomplishments, which include running for political office before women had the right to vote. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall for the Transport Group, this Molly is mounted on a small stage with a barely-there set, the better to showcase its greatest asset: Malone. The erstwhile Fun Home star is enchanting as she evolves from dreamy tomboy to headstrong wife to new-money firebrand while blazing through songs including “I Ain’t Down Yet,” “I’ve A’ready Started In” and “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys.” She even manages to sell some of Scanlan’s hokier lines and more far-fetched bits, but even so, the book scenes often feel sluggish. You wait impatiently for Malone and the talented company to start singing and dancing again. When they do, this new Molly Brown doesn’t just sail, it soars.
Abrons Arts Center (Off Broadway). Music and Lyrics by Meredith Willson. Book and new lyrics by Dick Scanlan. Directed by Kathleen Marshall. With Beth Malone, David Aron Damane. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.