Buoyant Performance Re-floats “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”

Composer-lyricist Meredith Willson’s 1960 musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was inspired by an exaggerated tale about the exploits of real-life Titanic survivor Margaret Tobin Brown. While not as successful as Willson’s “The Music Man,” which it followed by three years to Broadway (and which was still running), “Molly Brown” ran for fifteen months on the strength of Willson’s score (Richard Morris wrote the book) and Tammy Grimes’ Tony-winning performance.

Debbie Reynolds was nominated for an Oscar in the 1964 movie, and while Kathy Bates was not nominated for playing Molly in the movie “Titanic,” she was named Blockbuster Entertainment’s Favorite Supporting Actress for the role. (Remember Blockbuster?)

Beth Malone, center front, and the “Molly Brown” cast [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

Beth Malone will not be Tony-nominated for the Transport Group’s revival of “Molly Brown,” running through April 5 at Abrons Arts Center, because Tony recognizes only Broadway, and AAC is an off-Broadway house. That noted, Ms. Malone is a sure bet for this spring’s more inclusive Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations (at least). Her Molly Brown is a ‘Can’t take your eyes off her’ performance.

The original musical was a fictionalized version, with some factual references, but overall a traditional musical comedy. This revival retains seven of the original songs and adds ten others, all composed by Willson, but with mostly new lyrics by Dick Scanlan, who also substantially re-wrote Morris’s book. Scanlan, Tony-nominated in 2002 for his “Thoroughly Modern Millie” book and lyrics, did not ‘darken’ the original “Molly Brown,” as has become a prevailing technique. Rather, he humanized it. Molly and the others are three-dimensional characters in what is now a substantive Play with Music.

No small accomplishment by Scanlan, and an apt framework for Kathleen Marshall’s deft direction and nimble choreography, which spans the spectrum from back-country high-stepping to high-society ballroom gliding. (A woman seated near me lamented the relatively small stage. “If they had more space they could do even more,” she said. Well, yeah…and that may well come to pass.)

Identifying herself with a breezy “Call me Molly,” Margaret Tobin Brown appears in prologue testifying before a U. S. Senate Committee in May 1912 on the month-earlier Titanic sinking. Her refusal to back down from her assessment of the “folly” that enabled the disaster establishes her bold feminist credentials from the start. It’s an effective device that hovers over the rest of the bioplay, as it unfolds in flashback. (Her takedown of the cowardly Quartermaster who commanded her lifeboat foreshadows a later scene, which, staged very simply, makes you feel like you’re in Lifeboat No. 6 with her.)

Beth Malone and David Aron Damane

Back to 1886 and the Horace Tabor silver mine in Leadville, Colorado, where that once-precious metal’s value plummeted when the U. S. currency adopted the gold standard. Encouraged by Molly, then just nineteen, the distressed miners finally strike gold, both literally and, in Molly’s meeting and marrying soon-to-be wealthy J. J. Brown (David Aron Damane), figuratively as well.

In those early scenes, Malone’s Molly is a bundle of late-teen enthusiasm and charm. She sings the original score’s “I Ain’t Down Yet” with the hearty chorus of miners, and you know she will prevail. And prevail character and performer do, through Molly’s maturing over several decades, culminating back in the post-Titanic year. The issues that evolve along the way – classism, income inequality and misogyny among them – are not hammered home gratuitously in Scanlan’s dialogue, nor do they need to be in order to resonate today. Ms. Malone is as enthralling a mature Molly as she was as the girlish, cartwheel-turning teenager.

Damane is a stalwart J. J., who shares Molly’s enthusiasm even as he harbors resentment over her dominance. “I’ll Never Say No,” they sing together (another holdover), until J. J.’s fall from grace drives them apart. With Scanlan’s lyrics set to an interpolated Willson melody, “I’d Like to Change Everything About You” is another duet highlight. And let aficionados of the original be assured (and newcomers advised), “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” is still an ensemble barn burner. (Michael Rafter adapted Meredith Willson’s music, which, played by music director Joey Chancey’s terrific nine-piece orchestra and sung with fresh enthusiasm, is a treat.)

Molly (Beth Malone) and Maureen (Kaitlyn Davidson) in Lifeboat No. 6

Whitney Bashor stands out as Molly’s close friend, and Kaitlyn Davidson is a heartbreaker as the woebegone young woman sharing Molly’s lifeboat. Brett J. Banakis’s minimalist set pieces establish place, and Sky Switser’s costumes leave no doubt about time. Ms. Malone is an absolute stunner in one red gown with silvery accents, designed for her by Paul Tazewell.

There may have been a reason or two to disparage Margaret Tobin Brown in real life, but you’ll not discern one in Scanlan’s script. If that’s a flaw in his dramatization, so be it. But from “Call me Molly” at the start to her closing admonition to “Be calm, never settle…we ain’t down yet,” Beth Malone is nigh flawless as the woman who rejected the notion that it was a man’s world. Her buoyancy may well float this production uptown.

Through April 5 at Abrons Art Center, 466 Grand Street, NYC. Tues–Sat at 7:30pm; Sun at 2 and 7; with some Wed & Sat 2pm matinees. For schedule and tickets (from $65): www.transportgroup.org or phone 866-811-4111.

Note: Even though Molly Brown is a commanding lead role, Tammy Grimes’s 1961 Tony Award was for Featured Actress, because performers billed below the title were considered featured regardless. That same year, Dick van Dyke won the Male Featured Tony – for his leading role in “Bye Bye Birdie.” [David Sheward’s “Big Book of Show Business Awards”]


Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Sexual Liberation Is So Last Century: “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” off-Broadway

The first quarter hour of “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” depicts Bob and Carol at The Institute at Big Sur, a  ‘new age-y’ retreat, where the thirty-something couple is converted into a life-style based on a philosophy of “Don’t think. Feel.” No more empirical evaluations or judgements about one’s own or others’ restrictions, motivations, and such as jealousy, recrimination…or the need for clothing. The indoctrination process, overseen by a facilitator in individual and group sessions, is acted and directed in an effective way that makes what follows, while outlandish, plausible. At least in director Paul Mazursky’s 1969 movie in which Bob and Carl are played by Robert Culp and Natalie Wood .

Now there’s the New Group’s off-Broadway musical adaptation at The Pershing Square Signature Center, which strains to replicate the feel of the film, falling more than a bit short. The “B & C & T & A” movie is not in a league with “Tootsie” or even “Pretty Woman,” both of whose stage adaptations felt like outtakes, but it shares with those two a unique quirk that just doesn’t translate to the stage. (It works both ways: think “A Chorus Line” or even “Phantom of the Opera.”)

Getting it on: From left, Bob (Joél Pérez), Alice (Ana Nogueira), Carol (Jennifer Damiano), and Ted (Michael Zegen) [Photos: Monique Carboni]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Atten-HUT! Snap to for ” A Soldier’s Play” on Broadway

Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1982. Loosely based on Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” it was originally staged by the off-Broadway Negro Ensemble Company and made into a widely praised 1984 film (as “A Soldier’s Story”), with several holdovers from the play, including Adolph Caesar, who won the Supporting Actor Oscar for his challenging role, and Denzel Washington in a pivotal one. The current Roundabout Theatre Company revival is the first Broadway production. (Revivals in 1996 and 2005 were off-Broadway.)

There is story and there is plot, as Stephen Sondheim said recently about “West Side Story,” and a good play combines the two. “A Soldier’s Play” is a good play, whose story is simple: A U.S. Army Sergeant has been shot to death on a stateside base by a person or persons unknown and a commissioned Captain has been assigned to solve the mystery.

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Forsooth? Fuggedaboudit! “Romeo and Bernadette”off-Broadway

If, as hypothesized, there are only seven basic plots, it is a sure bet that Shakespeare used them all. (I count four in “Hamlet” alone.) It is no wonder, then, that playwrights through the years have gone to the Bardly well for inspiration, with occasional successes, both spectacular (“Kiss Me, Kate”) and modest (“Desperate Measures”).

Now along comes “Romeo and Bernadette,” which lovers of Shakespeare, musical theater and the blending of both, are urged to visit in the Mezzanine Theatre at A. R. T. at West 53rd and Tenth. Loosely (but recognizably) inspired by the tale of the star-crossed lovers, the play is a compact, two-hour treat from curtain to curtain.

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

A Star Turn by Laura Linney: “My Name Is Lucy Barton”

It seems that one-actor stage presentations have increased in number over the past decade or so. And as critical attention to them has grown with that proliferation, the quality level has risen as well. Long recognized as a theatrical form but marginalized before even multi-cast plays clocked in at ninety minutes, the solo show is now a staple not only of off-Broadway, but on the Main Stem too. Both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle include a “Solo Show” award category (Tony does not), lumping On- and Off-Broadway for consideration. (I am a DD/OCC voter.)  Serious solo-show pioneers include Spalding Gray and Anna Deavere Smith, while such as Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Colin Quinn have adapted their comedic personas to the form. In 2004, Doug Wright’s solo play “I Am My Own Wife” won not only the Best Play and Actor (Jefferson May) Tony Awards, but the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well.

Some solo shows are themed standup; some channel multiple characters to make a social point. None has been more complete a play than Rona Munro’s adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling 2016 novel “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” not least because its one actor is the sublime Laura Linney. Having opened in London’s West End in 2018 to great acclaim, Ms. Linney and “Lucy Barton” are now ensconced at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

The sublime Laura Linney [Photos: Matthew Murphy]

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

Married Thirty-five Years and Counting (or maybe not): “Bone on Bone”Premiere

Many a fine play is waylaid by shoddy acting and/or directing. (Recall your last misbegotten Shakespeare.) Conversely, a lesser theater piece can be enhanced by superior efforts in those categories. Such is the case with Marylou Dipietro’s “Bone on Bone,” enjoying a well-acted world premiere production at New Jersey Repertory Company.

The word ‘lesser’ is used advisedly. “Bone on Bone” is not a bad play – or one beyond redemption. It is just…mild. One becomes invested in the two characters, whose situation is relatable, but whose indecisiveness becomes frustrating as they spar with one another without landing any telling blows before ending up in a bland rapprochement.

Manhattanites Jonathan (John Little), 60, and Linda (Wendy Peace), 59 but appearing younger (per the playwright), are in a complacently traditional 35-year marriage. He is a partner in a prestigious NYC law firm; she, a painter, apparently proficient, but hardly renowned.

Wendy Peace and John Little [Photos: Andrea Phox Photography]

Lest the title’s metaphorical connection to their tenuous marriage escapes us, this from Linda’s early speech, ostensibly about calcium deposits: “What’s the stuff between the joints? When it’s gone they call it bone on bone?” Later, in another context, she says “That’s the thing, you can’t make up for lost time.” And there you have the crux and message of Ms. Dipietro’s play.

Sublimated issues arise when Linda’s former mentor offers her a position heading up an artist-in-residence program at Rhode Island School of Design. Will she take the job? If yes, must she move to Providence? (“You can’t be an artist-in-residence if you’re not ‘in residence’.”) Will Jonathan leave his lucrative Big Apple practice to move with her? After all, he did once entertain the notion of opening a hardware store. That the play holds our interest as they dance around these questions for eighty minutes is a comment on audience voyeurism. We wait for an emotional eruption but end up settling for a Hallmark resolution. (As a side note, the idea that a couple might split up after 35 years of marriage would have been unthinkable a generation or so ago. Today? Meh.)

Mr. Little and Ms. Peace

A third character, Linda’s job-offering advocate Ernest, who prefers Ernesto (finally, Ernie), spurs Jonathan’s passive-aggressive jealousy. Devoting less time and dialogue to the fellow’s expectorating-in-public habit and his nasal excretions would lend at least some justification for that concern. As it is, anyone whose sense of self is intact would pass on a pass by Ernie. (Thankfully, he does not appear).

Neither Linda nor Jonathan offers or invites intimacy, save for a couple of mild gestures, which, while touching, are tentative. This has not been a passionate marriage. (A tossed-off exchange about why they are childless comes and goes in a blink and she has never even seen him blow his nose in 35 years.) Given the couple’s opposing personalities and the playwright’s tight rein on them (civility reigns), the actors’ mining the piece for emotional nuance is admirable.

Mr. Little, lawyerly in appearance and demeanor, conveys Jonathan’s vexation with his reserve, which he cannot shake, despite both desire and motivation. It makes him a rather sad character, both to himself and to us, a quality (if such it be) that the actor reveals beneath a dignified veneer.

Linda is pretty much the opposite. Her potential joie de vivre, tamped down over the years, reveals itself just under the surface of Ms. Peace’s multi-level performance. Left standing alone at the end of some scenes, she conveys the woman’s (many women’s?) frustration with her station through small but telling gestures and expressions (especially effective in the intimate venue).

M. Graham Smith’s direction is of a piece with the material, efficient if not warm. Set designer Jessica Parks employs multiple angles to expand the relatively small stage, and Patricia E. Doherty’s apt costume choices complement character and situation.

Plays that pose questions and leave them unanswered comprise a genre of their own. Such plays can inspire post-performance conversations that might go on for days. “Bone on Bone” aspires to that level, but a few remarks on the way home will likely do the trick.

Through February 9 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Thurs. and Fri. at 8pm; Sat. at 3 & 8; Sun. at 2pm. For tickets ($55):732-229-3166 or online at www.njrep.org

Blog, Professional, Regional