SANDY — The Unsinkable Molly Brown has never been a great musical, even though it features words and lyrics written by Meredith Willson, creator of The Music Man, one of the best musicals ever written. Despite some wonderful music like, “I Ain’t Down Yet,” “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys,” and “I’ll Never Say No,” the original book (written by Richard Morris) was weak, even though it ran on Broadway for 532 performances when it opened in 1960. As a result, the show quickly became dated and fell into the background as Broadway musicals evolved through the years.
Still, The Unsinkable Molly Brown has a great story at its core: Margaret (“call me Molly”) Tobin, born dirt poor in a filthy hovel in Hannibal, Missouri, looks for a better life in Denver, but only makes it as far as Leadville, Colorado. She meets a miner who is just as poor as she is, but falls in love and marries him. Then, his mine strikes gold and they become filthy rich. Molly gains long-lasting fame (and the nickname “unsinkable”) as one of the survivors of the Titanic.
Given the score and the story, what better musical, to update and rewrite? It is perfect for a rebirth and reworking, like so many other old musicals with fabulous scores but antiquated scripts. The new creative team of Kathleen Marshall, Dick Scanlan, and Michael Rafter chose “new” music for the show from Willson’s existing catalog, added some new lyrics by Scanlan, and reworked the book. Unfortunately, this rewrite misses the mark. The first act is rather good, but the second act is driven by a social consciousness that becomes not only cumbersome, but tedious and off-putting. As movie producer Samuel Goldwyn said, “Pictures [or musicals] were made to entertain; if you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
The new Molly Brown relies too heavily on the social agendas of both the characters’ time and the 21st century, which ends up giving the characters and their relationships a short shrift. As a result, the second act and ultimately, the show, falls flat. Of course, a show can have a social consciousness, and many do it very well, such as South Pacific, Les Misérables, Hamilton, and scores of others. But none of them rely on that social agenda as the spine of the show, the way the revised version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown does. For successful shows, the message supports the main story and the relationships of the characters, to cause friction and drama within that story line.
So, the Hale Centre Theatre production had challenges from the beginning. Yet, successfully producing a show with a flawed script is not impossible. The director has to “mine” (pun intended) any strong moments of the show and concentrate on the relationships that are there, punctuating them so that the audience emotionally becomes drawn into the story. Unfortunately, Hale Centre Theatre misses this mark as well. From the first line of the show Molly (played by Maryn Tueller) goes “full bore,” fast-talking and bull-dozing through every scene, to the point where she could barely breathe in her first song, “Ain’t Down Yet.”
There actually is a lovely scene in Act I between Molly and Julia, (played by MaKenna Tinney), a woman whose husband has been killed in a mining accident. Molly visits Julia to apologize, feeling that she is responsible for Julia’s husband’s death. Molly understands that she is intruding on Julia’s grief but needs to do something to atone. It is a nice scene where the two women start at odds and end as friends. But director Dave Tinney moved it so fast and so loud that I was not able to emotionally connect with these two women who will end up as best friends forever.
The cast is talented, there’s no question about that. Tueller as Molly has a great voice, but is exhausting to watch. MaKenna Tinney has a lovely voice as well, but neither is given a breather to truly shine. Kaden Caldwell, who plays J. J. Brown, has an engaging voice and presence. But again, the scenes between him and Tueller do not have the eb and flow to fully capture the romance that eventually blooms.
Will Ingram as Vincenzo, Dale Hoopes as Erich, and Kenichi Nakashima as Arthur, are strong and round out the supporting cast nicely. One of the strengths of the new adaptation is the addition of these immigrant miners that represent the men that were risking their lives to build this country at the turn of the century — and how poorly they were treated by the mine owners.
Then there is the music. The soundtrack is full and rich, but the tempo is so fast that the lyrics were nearly impossible to understand, and some cast members could barely say their lines before they had to sing their lyrics. There’s a section in “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” where Nakashima’s character sings in Chinese and, because I so frequently could not understand lyrics in earlier songs, it was not until the end of his verse that I realized the lyric was in Chinese!
The talented and stalwart, Dave Tinney, directed and choreographed the show. His staging is imaginative and uses all the stage devices at the Hale to maximum effect, but I wish there had been more emotional levels in the show instead of just “full steam ahead.” But, then again, Molly does end up on the Titanic.
Like Molly herself, The Unsinkable Molly Brown is a whirlwind of a show. The Hale Centre Theatre has not fixed the play’s problems, but the production features some fine performers, technical marvels, and a surplus of energy. The show has value, but it needs a stronger emotional core to be a completely fulfilling theatrical experience.