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The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Lyrics and Music by Meredith Willson, Book and Additional Lyrics by Dick Scanlan
Based on the Original Book by Richard Morris
Musical Adaptation by Michael Rafter
Direction and Choreography by Kathleen Marshall
The Muny
July 21, 2017

Beth Malone (Center) and Cast
Photo: The Muny

I wasn’t around when The Unsinkable Molly Brown originally debuted on Broadway in 1960.  In fact, I wouldn’t be born until years later. Still, sitting at the Muny on a hot, humid Friday night, I felt like I was witnessing something I never thought I’d be able to see–the performance of a new, classic musical from the Golden Age of Broadway. This new, highly revised version of the show has been several years in the making, and several of the old familiar songs are still there, but still, with this production at the Muny, there’s this unmistakable air of something new, and it’s wonderful.

The only version of this show I had seen before was a high school production many years ago, but it doesn’t really matter what version of this show you may have seen, because this one is different. It’s a total re-imagining of the story, still focusing on Margaret “Molly” Brown (Beth Malone), but with new songs from composer Meredith Willson’s catalog of lesser-known works. There’s an entirely new book, as well, with new characters and a story that tracks more with Brown’s real life, even though for show purposes she’s still “Molly” here–apparently, she went by “Maggie” in real life. Anyway, when we first see Malone’s plucky, feisty Molly, she’s an uneducated but highly ambitious young woman newly arrived in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado, although she really wants to be in Denver, pursuing her dream of becoming rich and influential. Still, a series of events keeps her in Leadville, where she gets to know a group of miners including the stubborn and persistent J.J. Brown (Marc Kudisch), who eventually becomes her husband. She also meets Julia (Whitney Bashor), the young English widow of a miner who was killed in an accident, as well as the miner’s three friends Erich (David Abeles), Arthur (Paolo Montalban), and Vincenzo (Justin Guarini).  The story then follows Molly as she helps J.J. make his fortune in gold mining, and as she becomes an active member of Denver society and an activist for several causes. Of course, the story of her surviving the sinking of the Titanic is also here, but so much else is different. It’s a whole new show, completely in the spirit of an “old” show.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the “original” Molly Brown, I’m convinced anyone seeing it now would think this was the original. The beauty of using “new” songs written by Meredith Willson rather than having a new composer try to write in his style is that the songs–even with modified lyrics–fit right into the show, in terms of tone and style, and they sound completely authentic. The new book makes a lot more sense than the old book, as well, in that while it still contains fictional elements, it’s more in tune with the real life of the woman on whom it is based. With this production, we get to see Molly as a philanthropist and activist, as she was in real life, and the tensions between her and her husband are given more of a realistic basis. Also, the new characters fit into the story well, and it doesn’t seem revisionist at all. It seems like the show should always have been like this, and in overall atmosphere it’s very much a classic musical. This is a remarkable feat for all involved.

Also remarkable is the excellent cast that has been assembled here, and especially the casting of the title role. The term “star quality” gets thrown around a lot in theatre, but I can’t think of a better term to use when describing Beth Malone’s performance. The minute she steps on the vast Muny stage, she owns it. This is a story that spans more than 20 years of Molly’s life, and Malone convincingly navigates the character’s growth over the years, from young, uneducated and spunky, to older, wiser, more educated and still spunky. And Malone can sing and dance with energy and strength, as well. Her combative but affectionate chemistry with the excellent Kudisch as J. J. is also a highlight of this production. There’s a wonderful supporting cast as well, led by the smooth-voiced Guarini, Abeles, and Montalban as Molly’s and J.J.’s miner friends, and by Bashor as the earnest, also strong Julia. There’s a great, energetic ensemble, as well, and the miners’ ensemble at the beginning is especially notable, with powerful voices and athletic dancing. Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s choreography is dynamic and memorable as well, and the ensemble performs it with verve and gusto.

Molly’s world, from Leadville to Denver, to Europe and beyond, is well-realized in the production design here, with Derek McLane and Paul Tate dePoo III’s bold and colorful set design providing an excellent backdrop to the story. There are also bright and detailed costumes by Paul Tazewell and believable wigs by Leah J. Loukas. Rob Denton’s lighting, and Nathan W. Scheuer’s video designs also contribute to the overall look and atmosphere of this rousing, energetic production. There were a few minor sound issues on opening night, but I expect these will be dealt with as the show continues to run. The musical arrangements by music director Michael Rafter–well played by the superb Muny Orchestra–are also excellent, contributing to the overall classic Broadway vibe of this production.

Possibly because of the weather this week, they could have called this Molly Brown “Unmeltable”. Still, despite the extreme heat in St. Louis this summer, if the Muny’s latest production  of The Unsinkable Molly Brown can be defined by one word, that word has to be “unmissable”.  With a strong ensemble and truly stellar lead performance, this is a spectacular show that is worth sitting through the weather to see.

Beth Malone, Marc Kudisch
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Unsinkable Molly Brown in Forest Park until July 27, 2017.

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