Molly Brown, a socialite, social activist and survivor of the Titanic disaster in real life — turned into a Tony-winning Tammy Grimes on stage and Debbie Reynolds at her pluckiest on screen — has been meticulously transformed once again, into…Elizabeth Warren.
That’s clear from the very first scene of this new Off-Broadway version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, when Molly (portrayed by Beth Malone, Tony nominee for Fun Home) is testifying about the sinking of the Titanic in front of a Senatorial committee.
“You have been warned, nevertheless you persist. Settle down,” one of the Senators says, in an almost verbatim allusion to Senator Mitch McConnell’s comment about Senator Warren a century later.
“I never settle and I hate the word ‘down,’” Molly replies, pluckily.
And we’re off, in a show billed as “revitalized” but so changed from the 1960 Broadway musical by Meredith Willson (The Music Man) that if it were a house, this Unsinkable would be considered a gut renovation.
New book writer and lyricist Dick Scanlan, collaborating with director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall, reportedly spent more than a decade reworking the show, with only three lines of dialogue remaining from the original book by Richard Morris, many new characters, and only about half the songs from the original score (some with new lyrics); the other half are songs by Meredith Willson imported from elsewhere. (See the breakdown below.)
The love story between Molly (Malone) and her husband JJ (golden-voiced baritone David Aron Damane) is still more or less the heart of the show. In standard musical comedy tradition, they can’t stand each other at first, but he wins her over. She marries him even though he’s poor, and she helps him strike it rich in a gold mine. But this Molly is no longer just an irrepressible, ambitious tomboy turned social climbing material girl. She is an irrepressible social activist, who befriends and aids a local widow and streetwalkers alike, even before she marries J.J. Over the course of the musical, Molly founds, funds and works at a soup kitchen, a juvenile detention center, a relief fund, even a dog pound. She’s also a suffragette and a proto-feminist, who runs for Congress even before women have the vote. She holds her own against both sexist men and snooty upperclass women. She even leads a union organization effort among mineworkers, against the mine owner, her husband. If all that’s not enough, after the Titanic disaster, she organizes the International Coalition of Titanic Survivors, and outmaneuvers a rule-book dominated, possibly racist immigration official to welcome the ship’s survivors from faraway shores into the U.S. of A. — to cheers from the New York City audience.
Some of this activist Molly reportedly hews closer to the real Molly Brown – a Molly of her age for our age. But for all the gut renovation, the surface of The Unsinkable Molly Brown remains an old fashioned musical, with a peppy can-do heroine, a large cast of New York stage pros doing their best with winking humor and uplifting songs in a production helmed by Kathleen Marshall (Anything Goes, The Pajama Game) that comes as close to a Broadway production as is feasible given the obviously smaller budget and space at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side. This is a production that cares enough about Broadway pizzazz to have two separate costume designers; one, Paul Tazewell, is devoted exclusively to Malone’s gorgeous gowns. Given the track record of the new creative team, especially Dick Scanlan (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Everyday Rapture) it would surprise me if they weren’t aiming for Broadway. I wish them well. I’d certainly love to see the terrific Beth Malone back on Broadway in a topical show – though, rather than seeing her in Unsinkable again, I’d prefer Fun Home or Angels in America…or something actually new.
SONGS FROM THE 1960 BROADWAY SHOW (music and lyrics by Meredith Willson):
I Ain’t Down Yet
I’ve A’ready Started In
Belly Up to the Bar, Boys
I’ll Never Say No/My Own Brass Bed
Are You Sure?
Beautiful People of Denver (with some new lyrics by Dick Scanlan)
Dolce Far Niente/I May Never Fall in Love with You
EXISTING SONGS BY MEREDITH WILLSON (with some new lyrics by Dick Scanlan):
The Wonderful Plan
He’s My Friend (written for the 1964 film)
Share the Luck
The Same Little Chapel
NEW SONGS CREATED FOR THIS PRODUCTION (music by Meredith Willson, lyrics by Dick Scanlan):
The Sacred Thirty-Six
I’d Like to Change Everything About You
If We Can-Can
Wait For Me
The Unsinkable Molly Brown is on stage at the Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand Street, at the corner of Pitt Street in the Lower East Side, New York, N.Y. 10002) through April 5, 2020.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Music and lyrics by Meredith Willson, book and new lyrics by Dick Scanlan, “based on the original book by Richard Morris,” “Meredith Willson’s music adapted by Michael Rafter.” Scenic design by Brett Banakis; costume design is Sky Switser, with gowns for Beth Malone by Paul Tazewell; lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski; sound design by Walter Trarbach; music direction by Joey Chancey. Featuring Beth Malone as Molly Brown, David Aron Damane as JJ, Whitney Bashor as Julia, Omar Lopez-Cepero as Vincenzo, Alex as Erich, Paolo Montalban as Arthur, Paula Leggett Chase; Kaitlyn Davidson; Tyrone Davis, Jr.; Gregg Goodbrod; Michael Halling; Karl Josef Ko; Nikka Graff Lanzarone; Shina Ann Morris; Keven Quillon; and Coco Smith. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.