by Meredith Ganzman
The Unsinkable Molly Brown’s title character proclaims from the top of the show that she “ain’t down yet.” But Tony Award-nominee Beth Malone’s performance as Molly Brown turns out to be the only uplifting part of this overstuffed, heavy-handed show. The Transport Group brings the revival back to New York, thankfully for a short stay.
The story of the famous survivor of the Titanic sinking, Meredith Wilson’s 1960 follow up to The Music Man won star Tammy Grimes a Tony Award. In 1964 Debbie Reynolds was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Molly Brown. Decades later writer Dick Scanlan gave Molly a makeover. The brand new book and reworked score focuses on Molly’s philanthropy, advocacy for women’s and labor rights and her strength to make her own way and her own rules.
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts theatre company produced a reading of a new version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 2009. Malone (Fun Home, Angels in America ) became the production’s anchor in 2014, leading the newly staged version. A Colorado native like Molly Brown, Malone continued with the production in a 2017 summer run at The Muny in St. Louis.
For audiences who love the classic musical, this version will appear overworked. The 1960 musical and 2020 revival each have totally different characters, other than Molly. Rounding out the supporting cast is David Aron Damane (The Book of Mormon), who plays J.J., Molly’s husband. Whitney Bashor (The Bridges of Madison County) is a delicate widow with a stunning soprano for “The Wonderful Plan.”
Only three lines remain the same in the two versions of the musical. But the new dialogue feels out of place and forced, and additional songs and lyrics only slow down the production. The show simply drags, even with multi Tony-winning director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall at the helm. Scenic design is by Brett Banakis with costumes by Sky Switser. Paul Tazewell designed gowns for Beth Malone.
But just when all seems lost for Molly Brown’s return to New York, there is Beth Malone. Carrying the show alone, a powerful and exuberant Malone is seemingly at ease with what would otherwise be an extremely daunting task. From her opening number “I Ain’t Down Yet,” Malone is more than just unsinkable, she is unstoppable. But perhaps a one-woman version of this show would have made for smoother sailing.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
The Unsinkable Molly Brown will run through Sunday, April 5, at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street Run Time: 150 minutes with intermission