Just when I thought they’d revived about all the decent musicals from the golden age, along comes Charlotte Moore’s Irish Repertory Company to deliver this smartly pruned and artfully staged Bob Merrill-George Abbott hit from the 1957-58 Broadway season, where it enjoyed a year’s run and gave Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter two major roles in which to have themselves a fine time.
The adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie wasn’t history making, but Bob Merrill’s score, which did not contain any blockbuster hits, still seems 62% better than most new scores coming our way in this twenty-first century.
Merrill made his way to Broadway via the pop music route, during which his “How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?” didn’t peg him as a real contender against colleagues like Kander and Ebb, Bock and Harnick, Jerry Herman. Adler and Ross and Jones and Schmidt.
But this, his first musical, was a success and it was followed by Take Me Along, Carnival and Funny Girl (lyrics only on that one; Jule Styne wrote the music), which certainly earned him a place in the Theatre Hall of Fame. Lovely tunes and charming lyrics enhanced them all, but somehow his works aren’t trotted out as often as they should be, which gives us good cause to thank Ms. Moore for this surprising delight.
From the moment the lights rose on the postage stamp stage, revealing Jim Morgan’s simple but eloquent set of Jimmy the Priest’s Bar, we knew we were in good hands. Six attractive and talented singer-dancers greeted us with a rousing “Roll Yer Socks Up” and we were off to a flying start.
Into the bar came Chris Christopherson (Cliff Bernis) and his woman Marthy (Danielle Ferland). George Abbott’s book pares down O’Neill’s much longer scene to its essence, which is to tell us he misses his daughter Anna, and to be told by Marthy that Anna is indeed coming to visit, all the way from Minnesota where she’s been living on a farm,where her single father had sent her because he couldn’t raise her on his own. A sweet “Anna Lilla” lets us know his feelings for his girl.
Margaret Loesser Robinson gets to have the same entrance that Greta Garbo had in her first talking film, “Anna Christie”, the black and white movie based on O’Neill’s very dark and brooding play. Her first words are O’Neill’s and Garbo’s: “Gimme a whiskey baby, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy.” But Robinson makes them her own and even before she speaks, we can sense her Anna has a back story that is complicated and we are eager to hear what it is.
Ms. Moore, as director, has wisely pruned the original musical, which was staged by Bob Fosse and George Abbott, and re-focused it so it centers more around Anna and the macho Matt, a sailor (Patrick Cummings) who lands at her feet on her father’s coal barge when he is fetched from the sea during a storm.
Granted, the stripping down of O’Neill’s drama about “dat ol debil sea” to a musical which must make room for crowd pleasing production numbers as well as romantic ballads, makes for a more conventional, less thematic story, but it more suitably serves this musical, which winds its way through the fog and the cold to a happy ending. The New York waterfront is well established by Jim Morgan’s murky well lit setting of the coal barge on which the steamy love scene that binds Anna to her Chris is erotically effective.
Ms. Robinson and Mr. Cummings are at the center of this production, and his vibrant tenor voice gives life to “Look At ‘Er”, “It’s Good To Be Alive'” and., “Did You Close Your Eyes?” She takes the stage with a powerful “On The Farm” which shows Mr. Merrrill at the top of his form in attacking a double entendred number which means one thing to Christopherson and another to Anna. Her reprises of the two ballads also prove she is an actress who sings, not merely a singer, though her voice has range and quality.
Danielle Ferland’s “Marthy” does not eradicate memories of Thelma Ritter in the role.
Ferland is funny and feisty but more in the one-note mode of Patsy Kelly and I missed the hidden warmth that Ritter showed so beautifully as did Marie Dressler in the Garbo film version. Ms. Ferland’s impish and original face lent much to her performance as Little Red Riding Hood in the original production of Into The Woods. But her very strong attack was more effective in that small role than it is in this much larger one. She’s funny enough in “Flings” which she does with two cronies, but her comic duet with old Chris, “Yer My Friend, Aintcha?” lacks the tenderness that Ritter infused it with, the tenderness that earned her a Tony Award which she shared with her co-star Gwen Verdon. It’s only a subtle difference, and her attack on the role earned Ferland a big hand in the bows, but I’d have preferred a little more restraint.
Cliff Bernis’ “Chris” hit all the right marks, and though the George Abbott book stripped all the characters of much nuance, Mr. Bernis delivered a Chris with whom we could empathize.
To sum up, this is a minor selection from the thirty year reign of the golden age of American musicals. It’s up there with The Happy Time, Mack and Mabel, Destry, Dear World and others from the second tier of classics, but it’s far too entertaining to be left to gather dust on a shelf. Charlotte Moore has given New York a present by staging it, by casting it with two principals and an ensemble that create magic with little in the way of technical help, and I, for one, felt refreshed and restored, having visited an old friend of a musical and finding it still capable of contributing something valuable to all who gave it a listen and a gander.
New Girl in Town is onstage thru Sept 19, 2012, at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W 22nd St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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