The surprise of The Muny season — a rip-roaring, rollicking “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” — is a Rocky Mountain high full of wonder.
This vigorous overhaul of the 1960 Meredith Willson musical is a game-changer, with a momentous work-in-progress production on the Muny stage, and a bright future ahead.
The original had grown stale, but at its heart was a fascinating force of nature’s true rags-to-riches story. With fresh songs, spunkier script and sharper characters, the revised revival raises the profile of a dauntless iconic 20th century woman while celebrating our country’s rugged pioneer spirit.
Tony winners Dick Scanlan, book writer, and Kathleen Marshall, director and choreographer, have crafted an American tapestry that is relevant today and richly rewarding.
Scanlan dug deeper into the real life of trailblazing Margaret “Call Me Molly” Tobin Brown to bring out more dimensions. Her remarkable journey from hick in Hannibal, Missouri, to Leadville, Colorado rabble-rouser, to philanthropist in Denver high society, to toast of Europe included the Silver Boom, Gold Rush and RMS Titanic.
In addition to spotlighting her lifeboat heroics, documented in Walter Lord’s book “A Night to Remember,” Scanlan has emphasized her social justice reform efforts, which led to the first juvenile court system and one of the first humane societies, among many other accomplishments.
In the plucky title role, the tiny but mighty dynamo Beth Malone displays the exuberance, resilience and fierceness that is the stuff legends are made of, truly a towering performance.
Mark my words — we will be talking about this star for years, much like us old-timers mention seeing Jerry Orbach as Chuck Baxter in “Promises, Promises,” Joel Grey as the Emcee in “Cabaret,” Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” and Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly!”
As she progresses from fireball to firebrand, Malone effortlessly moves between songs, dances, comedy and drama. Her boundless energy propels her from scene to scene, never letting up or letting anyone else down while they have their moments.
The Tony nominee for “Fun Home” is a revelation here, but so is the rest of the captivating cast. The top-shelf production team has boosted an old-fashioned storytelling formula with charming characters that we can invest in, along with keener sensibilities to engage modern audiences.
Malone has strong chemistry with Marc Kudisch, three-time Tony nominee, as brawny J.J. Brown. Their tempestuous romance as a “can’t-live-with-them, can’t live-without-them” married couple is as enjoyable as any Hugh Grant romantic comedy.
Plus, their voices combine beautifully. Their “I’ll Never Say No” and “My Own Brass Bed” combo are warm and tender versions of the originals, and their rendition of the new “I’d Like to Change Everything About You” is feisty and fun.
Supporting players are uniformly superb — particularly Whitney Bashor as Julia, and the rough-hewn miners — Justin Guarini as Vincenzo, Paolo Montalban as Arthur and David Abeles as Erich. They are strong representing the devoted immigrants whose hands built America.
Bashor shines with Malone in a comic ditty “Cuppa Tea,” in which they win over the snooty insufferable Mrs. Sneed-Hill and her “Sacred 36” cronies.
Other notable women are Donna English as outspoken Baby Doe Tabor, Jennifer Evans as gutsy maid Mary, and Stephanie Martignetti as frightened Maureen.
Memorable original songs “I Ain’t Down Yet,” “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys,” and “Colorado, My Home,” have survived the scalpel. Willson, most notable for “The Music Man,” has a natural affinity for rousing upbeat tunes. Scanlan inserted a song the composer wrote for the Red Cross, “Share the Luck,” and it perfectly fits.
Scanlan’s additional lyrics, along with Michael Rafter’s musical adaptations, vocal and incidental arrangements and music direction, contribute to a broader sense of community and that whole small-town roots vibe that Willson espoused.
The majestic Rocky Mountains displayed on the LED screen — fine video design work by Nathan W. Scheuer — enhance a grand turn-of-the-century western frontier by scenic designers Derek McLane and Paul Tate dePoo III.
When Molly becomes a highfalutin dame, her costumes are stunning, as are all the cast’s elegant outfits, but the red gowns are where costume designer Paul Tazewell really shines.
As a workshopped show, a few nips and tucks are needed to the second act’s European romp, as I feel it’s not as lucid or as tight as it could be.
However, to see this musical’s transformation after its 50-year mark is astonishing. The production team has much experience spotlighting interesting female-centered stories, and it shows.
Overall, the new improved “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” is an ode to the survival spirit, the common threads that bind us, and our ability to overcome any obstacle through grit, grace and gumption.
Plus, you’ll be glad to know this woman on more levels than a tomboy who struck it rich and sailed on the Titanic.
If this revised revival is Broadway bound, yes-siree and yeehaw.
“The Unsinkable Molly Brown”
Where: The Muny
When: Now through July 27
Time: 8:15 p.m.
Box office: 314-361-1900