A presidential election. A woman running for office. Single moms. Union strikes. Fires. The volatile market. Helping the homeless. It may sound like America 2020 but, in fact, these are some of themes in an all-new, resounding revisal of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, marking the show’s off-Broadway debut with the originative work of Transport Group, and playing at the Henry Street Settlement – Abrons Arts Center at 466 Grand Street through April 5th.
Based on the classic Meredith Willson musical comedy, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, this revitalized version gives Molly Brown a makeover. With only three lines remaining from the original book by Richard Morris, the prolific Dick Scanlan (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Renascence) almost like a visionary, looked beyond the mythologized Molly to write her as she really was: a social progressive who made a real difference in many people’s lives. Scanlan’s new lyrics also update and refresh Willson’s music, adapted by Michael Rafter. The cherry on top is three-time Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall (Anything Goes, The Pajama Game) with lively direction and inventive choreography.
The rags-to-riches story is of Margaret “Molly” Brown—a turn-of-the-century hero of the underdog, champion of women’s rights, fighter for labor rights, advocate of immigration reform—and, most famously, survivor of the Titanic disaster. As well, it is a modern love story between Molly and her husband, J.J. Brown, as they embrace, negotiate and explore the traditional male/female roles of a marriage; separating for thirteen years and, ultimately, reconnecting.
A strong woman who rejected the rules imposed on her by a man’s world, the real Margaret “Molly” Brown could only dream of being portrayed by such a powerhouse as Tony Award nominee Beth Malone (Fun Home). The play opens in flashback, with Molly being interrogated by a Titanic committee to learn more about the survivors of lifeboat #6. They talk of how the ship went down, unkindly telling her to please sit down and trying to keep her down. Molly says, “I hate the word down but I love the word up, ’cause up means hope an’ that’s just what I got.” And does she ever. Malone gives a star turn of a performance, with a voice that knocks your socks off.
The cast is stellar. Standouts include David Aron Damane (The Book of Mormon, Big River, The Life) who commands with his presence as J.J., the gorgeous soprano of Whitney Bashor (The Bridges of Madison County) as Julia, Omar Lopez-Cepero (On Your Feet!) endearing as her husband, Vincenzo, and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Chicago, Women on the Verge…) shines bright as Baby Doe, alluring and no-nonsense with great comic-timing.
A wall of authentic, yellowed newspaper clippings create the backdrop of the versatile scenic design by Brett Banakis; costume design is by Sky Switser, with beautiful gowns for Beth Malone by Paul Tazewell; lighting design is by Peter Kaczorowski; sound design is by Walter Trarbach; music direction is by Joey Chancey; casting is by Nora Brennan. The stage manager is Victoria Navarro.
In a time where we might be seeking inspiration of how to navigate the choppy waters of our time, Molly Brown offers a delightful and entertaining night at the theater, and a rousing reminder that we ain’t down yet!