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The Unsinkable Molly Brown: Females Are Strong as Hell

An old musical gets a much-needed facelift.

Beth Malone (on the ladder) stars in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, directed by Kathleen Marshall, for Transport Group at the Abrons Arts Center.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Forget everything Debbie Reynolds taught you. I'm referring specifically to her Academy Award-nominated performance in the 1964 film The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a toe-tapping musical about a Titanic survivor. That film is how most people know the songs and revisionist history from Meredith Willson's 1960 Broadway musical, which came hot on the heels of The Music Man. The version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown now playing with Transport Group at the Abrons Arts Center represents a gut renovation of that old musical, keeping all that is charming about it, while making it more inhabitable for modern performers and audiences.

The story is still about Margaret "Molly" Brown (the unsinkable Beth Malone), a poor daughter of the Irish diaspora who sets out for Denver, but ends up in Leadville. That's where she meets and marries J.J. Brown (David Aron Damane), a miner with a passion for minerology and a mistrust of organized labor. With Molly's help, he strikes it rich developing a new method of gold extraction. They buy a big house in Denver, where they face an iceberg of snobbery in the form of "sacred 36," the richest families in town. Undaunted, Molly sets out on a campaign of social reform, planning her own run for Congress in a time before women even had the vote. But when she speaks in favor of the miners' union, she risks sinking her own marriage.

Beth Malone (center) leads the off-Broadway cast of The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
(© Carol Rosegg)

This revamped Molly Brown is the result of over a decade of work by book writer Dick Scanlan and director Kathleen Marshall. Scanlan has completely reworked Richard Morris's original book to hew closer to Brown's actual life, while bringing in the political issues of her time, some of which remain with us today, like immigration, women's rights, and worker representation. Scanlan's inclusion of the gold and silver politics of the late 19th century is particularly impressive, and it is central to the story of the Brown family. The result is a show that speaks directly to 2020 while sounding like a good old-fashioned musical from Broadway's golden age.

Scanlan and music adapter Michael Rafter have maintained the timeless numbers from the original (like "I Ain't Down Yet" and "I'll Never Say No"), added one from the film ("He's My Friend"), and thrown in a bunch of Willson trunk songs with new lyrics by Scanlan (the marriage duet "I'd Like to Change Everything About You" is particularly delightful). Such Franken-musicals rarely rise from the operating table, but this one is very much alive, and it sounds great under the baton of music director Joey Chancey. The distinctive Willson marches and Dixieland flourishes had my heel tapping all night.

Shina Ann Morris, Paula Leggett Chase, and Kaitlyn Davidson dance in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Marshall has staged a production that is as visually impressive as it is musically, emotionally, and intellectually stimulating. From Brett J. Banakis's ever-shifting set to Sky Switser's candy-colored costumes, the stage explodes with dynamism. Everything seems to glitter like gold under Peter Kaczorowski's lighting, and every note is heard through Walter Trarbach's pristine sound design.

Marshall, who also choreographs, creates memorable production numbers like few others in the business, like the rollicking "Belly Up to the Bar, Boys" (now with lyrics in German, Italian, and Chinese). As the cast works up a sweat and your grin reaches from ear to ear, you'll find yourself wondering, How is this not on Broadway already?

All of it is made possible by a stellar ensemble: Alex Gibson, Omar Lopez-Cepero, and Paolo Montalban play a trio of immigrant miners who not only form the core of Molly's community, but present an exciting vision of the frontier as a land of intrepid new Americans eager to leave their mark on a young country (it's a far cry from the aggressively Anglo version of the West that has predominated for too long). The hilarious Paula Leggett Chase steals every scene she's in, first as a languid Leadville burlesque dancer, and then as the tipsy snob Louise Sneed-Hill. CoCo Smith is always ready with a one-liner as Mary, the Brown family maid.

Beth Malone plays Molly Brown, and David Aron Damane plays J.J. Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Damane and Malone have palpable chemistry as the pair at the center of the tale. They're both charming and passionate, conveying a couple who are flawed but absolutely worth rooting for. When Damane sings "I'll Never Say No" in his powerful baritone, it's hard not to instantly melt and think, What a man. As the indefatigable Molly, Malone seems to burst off the stage with vigor and heart. We come to appreciate Molly not just as a strong woman, but as a true American icon — and that's long before we see her take charge of a boatload of Titanic survivors. A stage direction early in Scanlan's libretto notes, "If it were taking place in 2022, she'd be the first female US president," and after seeing Malone's magnetic performance, I'm ready to cast my ballot.

All of which is to say that you ought to belly up to the box office and buy your tickets now. Musicals like this are few and far between, and finding one off-Broadway is like striking gold. Don't miss the rush!

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