(l to r) Beth Malone and David Aron Damane in Transport Group’s ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Having slugged through more town halls and Democratic debates than anyone should have to suffer through in a lifetime, let alone a single election cycle, I can’t help but wish that Margaret Tobin Brown was in the running — or at least Beth Malone’s spirited version of her, now onstage in Transport Group’s reimagining of The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
The real Margaret “Molly” Tobin’s colorful life began in Missouri. She moved west with her siblings to Leadville, Colorado, where she met her husband, J.J. Brown, whose mining engineering efforts catapulted the poor couple into the elite. They eventually moved to Denver, where Molly’s philanthropic and advocacy efforts flourished. While traveling through Europe with the Astor family, she received word of an ill grandchild and immediately booked passage on the Titanic. Molly Brown was one of 705 survivors and commended for her behavior on the lifeboat, encouraging the crewman to return to the icy waters. However, it’s not known if additional passengers were saved.
The Broadway musical, featuring a book by Richard Morris and music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson (The Music Man) in 1960 and ran 532 performances, earning a Tony Award for Tammy Grimes in the title role. (Debbie Reynolds appeared in the 1964 film version.) But the show’s tone quickly grew stale, and the stage musical has rarely seen the light of day. That is until Dick Scanlan (Motown The Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie) got his hands on it. Scanlan has been retooling the work for more than a decade, beginning with a staged reading at Denver Center for the Performing Arts followed by a full production (2014) and then again at the MUNY in St. Louis (2017). Tony Award-winner Kathleen Marshall has been attached to the project and returns to direct and choreograph.
From the opening scene in which Molly faces off against a committee of senators questioning her behavior aboard a Titanic lifeboat, in which she responds, “I never settle and I hate the word down!”, it’s clear that this Molly Brown has a greater sense of agency than her 1960 predecessor. Malone leans into the character’s self-worth, which unfolds as the story flashes back to her arrival in Leadville, her unconventional courtship with J.J. (David Aron Damane), her rise in society once J.J. discovers a new gold mining technique, and her dedication to advocacy and humanitarian causes including the hungry and homeless and workers’ rights.
Scanlan’s drastically revised book (there are only three lines of dialogue from the 1960 version) moves at a brisk pace, accentuated by Marshall’s seamless transitions that give the work a more fluid, modern sensibility. The 16-member company fills the Abrons Arts Center’s small stage (though Brett J. Banakis’s scenic design eventually reveals that there’s considerably more depth), playing multiple roles to varying degrees of success.
But it’s Malone that has The Unsinkable Molly Brown’s reimagined tone and narrative firmly secured in her pocket. Physically relentless, she jumps, leaps, flips and belts her way through the score, which features ten additional songs from Wilson’s canon (adapted by Michael Rafter), along with Scanlan’s new lyrics. The glimmer in her eye rests squarely on Damane’s J.J. from the moment he sings “I’ve A’ready Stared In,” establishing feisty onstage chemistry that carries through to the musical’s final moments.
Marshall, known for invigorating Golden Age musicals like The Pajama Game and Wonderful Town, strikes gold again, maximizing dance sequences but also paying particular attention to Scanlan’s historically referenced book, which finds a nemesis in Louise Sneed-Hill (Paula Leggett Chase, Tootsie). Hill established the Sacred 36, a group of society women that Molly longed to be a part of but was denied because of her lack of education and matter-of-fact demeanor. It represents one of the countless microaggressions Brown faced in her lifetime, yet she nearly always buoyed herself with self-determination.
If there’s any distraction in an otherwise sharp production, it is Sky Switser’s motley costume design. While the principal characters fare relatively unscathed (Malone’s gown is designed by Paul Tazwell), the female ensemble’s semi-precious jewel-toned garments (think high school class ring) feature ill-placed seams and ruffles, bizarre necklines, and a tie-dye effect that looks like a summer camp project gone awry.
An interactive element muddles The Unsinkable Molly Brown’s final scenes as the fate of the Titanic’s surviving passengers eclipses the shows’s final moments. But it’s probably the way Margaret Tobin Brown would have wanted it — stepping out of the spotlight to make room for the underserved.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Transport Group at Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street, NYC
Through March 22
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. His culture writing has appeared in Dramatics Magazine and on TDF Stages and ShowTickets.com. Matthew is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a past fellowship recipient from The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.