I really love Abrons Arts Center. I love heading to the Lower East Side and quickly getting turned around on Grand St. I love spotting Kossar’s Bagels & Bialys, a welcome confirmation that I’m headed the right direction. At Abrons, I’ve seen Taylor Mac and Mandy Patinkin mime through the end of the world, Eliza Bent conduct a ceremony honoring the bowel movement, and Royal Osiris Karaoke lead a pre-show meditation, to name just a few.
In fact, it was far more peculiar to walk into Abrons’ Playhouse Theater and sit down for a traditional musical revival. True, the Playhouse has the feel of a crumbling town hall auditorium, but it typically plays host to strange and forward-thinking work, including other Transport Group productions. “Are we sure this show is going to be weird enough?” you almost want to ask. Well no, it is not–either for this space or for its own good.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown debuted on Broadway in 1960. Meredith Willson’s follow-up to his mega-hit The Music Man, it was less successful but has lingered in the zeitgeist, especially with Margaret Brown’s real-life heroism and years of activism now recognized. For this production, Dick Scanlan has radically altered Richard Morris’s original book, while Michael Rafter has reshaped the score by adding “trunk songs” from Wilson’s catalog. This new team, rounded out by director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, seems to have attacked the show with two goals: play up Brown’s social justice work, and make it a hell of a lot more exciting.
Given the wealth of work Scanlan and company have put in, it seems churlish to say they didn’t do enough. Yet somehow, they didn’t do enough. The Molly Brown that has landed on stage at Abrons looks fantastic, sounds marvelous, and moves with infectious energy. For what it is, Marshall’s production is indeed a delight to watch. It is also a bizarre Frankenstein’s monster of a piece, an old-fashioned knee-slapper with occasional insertions of pointed political debates and targeted wokeness. Some of those additions are fairly seamless, like Scanlan’s smart in-medias-res framing device of Molly on a Titanic lifeboat. Others are very awkward indeed, like a unionization debate that comes off as a writer in 2020 attempting to mimic the stilted dialogue of another time.
Would it be too much for this revised Molly Brown to instead be actively weird? Maybe. Scanlan’s last original work in New York was Whorl Inside a Loop, a highly theatricalized piece he co-authored with Sheri Renee Scott. Whorl seamlessly blended firsthand accounts and fiction, exploring the lives of six black inmates at a maximum-security prison with humor and care. Flawed as it was, Whorl saw Scanlan and Scott trying to push past easy answers about crime, incarceration, and the white gaze.
So it doesn’t seem that wild to suggest that Scanlan could have pushed further than dropping in passing nods to suffrage and a winking “nevertheless, she persisted” reference. I can’t speak to whether issues with the creators’ estates stood in his team’s way. But speaking just to the show in front of me, Molly Brown is crying out for a radical rethinking that genuinely places its woman-out-of-time protagonist front and center, and truly delves into her confusing contradictions.
I don’t mean to dismiss what we’ve gotten instead, as there is much to admire about Marshall’s production. She makes incredible use of the Playhouse stage. The sets are simple and sparse, but the space gradually expands as Brown’s own world grows wider, a gorgeous effect. At the moments when Marshall’s choreography is let loose (too few and far between), all you can feel is joy. And though the show’s score is a mixed bag, when it soars, it soars. “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” is a bop. “My Own Brass Bed” is a heartbreaker. Also, the hot Candy Crush guy from Octet is in it, doing a wonderful German accent.
Beth Malone is the glue holding the whole thing together. As Brown, her performance embodies ‘60s glamor while always commenting on it, wryly and with a wink. It’s a wonderful balance that honors Brown’s achievements while acknowledging that this Molly is inevitably a fantasy. Brown’s internal conflict about her wealth lives especially strongly in Malone’s work. Without it needing to be spelled out, she suggests Brown’s guilt at her own good fortune, and her activism as partly an effort to make up for that guilt.
Still, Malone’s careful and contemporary perspective on the character only heightens the wish that Scanlan had pushed harder. The show is ultimately a love story, and its concluding scenes focus on Brown’s realization of how deeply she loves her husband. As an 11 o’clock number, Scanlan has added “Wait For Me,” Brown’s plea to J.J. to hold on for her return. It’s a gorgeous number, and Malone sings it flawlessly. But if your radical reworking still leaves this unique, indefatigable woman’s story centered around a man, what was really the point of any of it?