Review: It's Smooth Sailing With The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Beth Malone as Molly Brown.
Beth Malone as Molly Brown.
Jennifer M. Koskinen

The Unsinkable Molly Brown is one of the Denver Center Theatre Company's most ambitious productions in its thirty-year history: The company has spared neither pains nor expense in having Meredith Willson's 1960 musical reworked and remounted -- and the results are impressive.

See also: The Unsinkable Margaret Brown Was a Crusader Before She Became a Musical Heroine

This iteration began its life as part of the 2009 New Play Summit, when writer and lyricist Dick Scanlan, a three-time Tony winner, brought his revised version to the city. That was the start of a musical shake-up, with Scanlan using songs from the original, finding others from Willson's oeuvre -- some unproduced until now -- and changing lyrics where necessary. There are several big, lively, toe-tapping numbers -- although some of the other songs, in particular the love songs, are entirely forgettable.

The show is also better-structured than it was in 1960. It now begins with Molly Brown on a rowboat on the high seas after her escape from the sinking Titanic, the historical event that gives the musical its name. She argues with the crew member in charge, comforts a fellow passenger and, once the boat has docked at the end of the play, tries to organize safe entry to the country for the immigrant survivors. The issues discussed are meatier, too. Molly Brown is no longer the usual musical comedy heroine who finds love and swaps her rags for riches, though you do see echoes here of all kinds of musicals -- from Calamity Jane to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. (Surely the choreography for "Belly Up to the Bar" is an homage to Michael Kidd's unforgettable dances for the latter, and Burke Moses, who plays Molly's beloved J.J. Brown, has the fine big voice and solid, barrel-chested appeal I can't help associating with Howard Keel.) But this leading lady doesn't end up tamed by a strong guy and isn't cutely feisty. She's out-and-out bossy, sometimes obnoxiously so. Also idealistic, self-interested, generous and very much in love with her husband.

Beth Malone, who just happens to be a Denver native, plays Molly with tremendous energy, intelligence and verve. The entire cast is strong, and the tech matches the performances for style and professionalism. The set is lovely, featuring an elegantly lit background that shows Colorado mountains and sky in the first act, fronted by two-dimensional structures and/or evocative silhouettes, and in the second, the glowing lights of Denver. Kathleen Marshall, another multiple Tony winner, choreographs and directs. Larry Hochman's orchestration is sharp and exhilarating.

Still, it's hard not to wonder why so much creativity and effort have gone into reviving what had been a fairly inspid show, originally.

Hard, that is, unless you're from Colorado. Molly Brown's one-time home on Pennsylvania Street is today a museum celebrating one of those larger-than-life frontier figures, the kind of iconoclast who personifies the independent spirit we westerners like to think we possess. The woman was open-minded, progressive and, at least as depicted in this musical, a contemporary feminist thinker. Not all the events we see are historically accurate, including the happy ending, but in these dreary, conservative days, it's nice to celebrate a heroine who cared about the poor, championed the rights of laborers, knew how to organize effectively, and wanted to run for office for altruistic reasons. It's also nice to watch a show that acknowledges the diversity of the miners and the immigrant contribution to our state. The script adds extra interest and complexity with an ongoing ethical question -- how much was Molly Brown motivated by idealism and how much by her love for media attention? -- and then brings both motivations together satisfactorily at the end.

Audiences outside this state might be quicker to spot the flaws. The love between Molly and J.J. is at the center of the plot, yet the dialogue never feels convincing. For the most part, J.J. is gentle and reasonable but every now and then, apparently just to keep the plot moving forward, he erupts with an outrageously sexist remonstrance. Molly doesn't display much complexity, either; she's always tough and unyielding. When the two of them fight, there's no real tension; you know they'll make up swiftly. As swift and unconvincingly as the issue of Molly's support of a miners' strike against her husband is resolved.

But that's not enough to sink this production, a lively swirl of color, music and skill.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 26, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex. For more information, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.


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