Revivals, Revisals: “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”

A review of the newly revised production of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” in light of “Mack & Mabel” at City Center Encores! and Ivo van Hove’s “West Side Story.” In our current theatrical moment, what degree of nostalgia should go into a revival?

As a critic, some weeks you see Lucas Hnath, Young Jean Lee, and Alice Birch question the forms that theatre can take. Other weeks you see back to back revivals of Jerry Herman, Leonard Bernstein, and Meredith Wilson. After having consecutive viewings of three Golden Age musicals, it made me stop and think about nostalgia and about what we are actually doing when we mount revivals.

Each of these productions take a very different approach to the idea of fidelity. “Mack & Mabel” at City Center Encores! is almost the definition of a museum piece revival. The production is just an excuse to hear Herman’s luscious score with a large orchestra; nothing shocking happens in the staging, it is about as straightfoward as possible. Ivo van Hove’s “West Side Story” is the exact antithesis, here an iconoclast director has cut material, condensed it into one act, eliminated Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography, set the piece in modern day, and integrated video footage. While “Mack & Mabel” feels like a bit of time travel, this “West Side Story” seems unfathomably far from the original production.

Somewhere in between is The Transport Group’s heavily revised “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” which has perhaps found the sweet spot of Golden Age period vibe and modern sensibility. While Daniel Fish’s “Oklahoma!,” for example, radically reimagined the piece without changing the text, this version of “Molly Brown” is “completely” different and “revitalized” — a textbook example of a revisal. Other than Molly, none of the characters are the same, there are only reportedly three lines of dialogue that have remained from Richard Morris’s original book, and almost the whole of Act II is different.

The changes are the result of a team effort: Dick Scalan did the new book and all the new/additional lyrics, Michael Rafter adapted some of the songs, and at the helm is director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall. The song list for this production itself is a hodge-podge of Wilson: some songs from “Molly Brown” are left in tact, some have added lyrics, and some songs are inserted here from elsewhere in the Wilson catalog (but with new lyrics).

What remains is only the bare bones of the original musical. In fact, so much has changed, it brings up the question of why the team didn’t just write something brand new. The material they have kept is Wilson’s score, an unexpected choice since unlike “Mack & Mabel,” the score is not a beloved part of the musical theatre canon. Disappointingly, many of the original “Molly Brown” Wilson songs are all clearly re-writes of songs from “The Music Man.” The self-plagiarism here is not subtle: “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” is “Shipoopi,” “Are You Sure?” is “Trouble,” we have several “Pickalittle” ladies choruses, and there’s even a barbershop quartet.

Of course, the result of keeping Wilson’s score and the rough outline of the musical is that this production is able to boast itself as almost entirely new while also having the clout of a revival and the feeling of a Golden Age musical. This “Molly Brown” cashes in on nostalgia while simultaneously catering to modern taste, a rare combination that has, until now, yet to be mastered. This revisal and its balance of old and new sits perfectly within the City Center “Mack & Mabel” and van Hove “West Side Story” spectrum, finding a middle that is both comforting and refreshing without being boring or heretical.

Putting my larger musings on the state of reviving musicals aside, there is actually quite a bit to discuss in this new version of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Like the original, it tells the story of Margaret “Call Me Molly” Tobin (Beth Malone) and her journey from Leadville, Colorado wannabe miner to Denver socialite activist to outspoken divorcée in a Titanic lifeboat. Historically, the real Molly Brown has quite the story, and here the creative team has done their dramaturgical research and integrated more of Molly’s social reforms.

The result can at times come across as pandering to its liberal-leaning, Trump-hating audience, but I didn’t mind some historical parallels that speak to modern feminist politics. More importantly, the new focus, and Scalan’s new book in general, have served to make the female characters rounded and complex, even more so (thank god, finally) than the male characters. Molly, her friend Julia (Whitney Bashor), the mine owner’s wife Baby Doe Tabor (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), and the maid Mary (Coco Smith) are all multifaceted, hilarious, feisty women who stand up to and frequently boss around the men in their lives.

Those men include love interest J.J. Brown (David Aron Damane), and a trio of miners with German, Italian, and Chinese ancestries (Alex Gibson, Omar Lopez-Cepero, and Paolo Montalban), all of whom round out the main cast with laughter and skill. The ensemble too does quite a bit of work, changing costumes constantly while expertly and playfully executing Marshall spot-on choreography.

Marshall’s old school, ballroom-infused choreography is flawless and fun, and is being done at a Broadway level. The design of this production (costumes by Sky Swister, sets by Brett J. Banakis, lights by Peter Kaczorowski) leaves a bit to be desired at times, but the team has made great use of their small space. Overall, it is rare to see an Off-Broadway musical than feels like a Broadway show, but this production of “Molly Brown” fits the bill, thanks to the cast size, the caliber of the performances, and once again, to Marshall’s brilliant choreography.

Although it seems impossible, I have gotten this far into the review without talking at length about the unsinkable Beth Malone. As always and as expected, she is putting every ounce of her soul into this difficult role (she leaves the stage only for long enough to change costumes). Molly is one of those female roles that is so clearly written by a man, the type that includes a massive transformation during intermission — think “Mack & Mabel” or “Grey Gardens.”

Malone manages to straddle the two very different versions of her character quite well, transitioning from Wilson/Morris’s “I Ain’t Down Yet” illiterate tomboy to Scalan’s social reformer in a red silk gown. What makes this work is a combination of Malone being a superb actress and Scalan’s book maintaining Molly’s fiery unbridled passion even in her more refined settings in Act II.

What makes this revisal unique is that it is both so different from and yet so rooted in the original. At times it can feel like an alternate “Music Man,” but what makes it go beyond this is precisely all the changes that Scalan has made, all the new complexities and details that make this so much richer than just another “Music Man.” It is not a “Mack & Mabel” nostalgia factory, nor is it an unrecognizable “West Side Story.” The production captures the spirit of a Golden Age musical while also feeling new. That being said, it sadly retains a bit of the clunkiness of the original, and often settles on a single tone of relentless excitement and optimism. I can’t help wondering what this team could have accomplished if they started from scratch.

Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, Beth Malone, and the entire team of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” have mined something out of Meredith Wilson and Richard Morris’s musical, and even if what they found isn’t necessarily a gold nugget, it might just be a silver bar with a sparkle all its own.

Theater Critic. Vassar College alum, current PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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