Broadway composer Meredith Willson followed his biggest hit, 1957’s “The Music Man,” with a musical about the real-life socialite and Titanic survivor Margaret Brown. But the Transport Group’s new production of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” which opened Wednesday at Off Broadway’s Abrons Arts Center, bears little resemblance to the 1960 original — or to the 1964 big-screen adaptation starring Debbie Reynolds.
For the better part of the last decade, director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall has been working with writer Dick Scanlan to overhaul Richard Morris’ original book to inject the story with a more realistic depiction of Brown as an early-20th-century paragon of progressivism. And Brown is a truly interesting figure: a Missouri native who landed in a Colorado mining town, married well and then became an early advocate for women’s suffrage, trade unions, workers’ rights, juvenile criminal justice reform and even animal shelters. Oh, and then she survived the disastrous maiden voyage of the Titanic — and told off the men who panicked and refused to rescue more survivors from the wreckage.
Marshall and Scanlan’s tinkering extends to Willson’s score, which includes such melodic gems as “I Ain’t Down Yet,” “I’ll Never Say No” and the up-tempo “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys.” While those songs are featured prominently, the score is also pumped up with entirely new lyrics as well as additional tunes from elsewhere in Willson’s catalog. The result is half revival, half jukebox musical a la the Gershwin-inspired “Crazy for You.”
Beth Malone (“Fun Home”) is a spitfire as Molly, with her disarming drawl and fierce determination to do what she thinks is right. She even manages to soften some of Molly’s rougher edges (she’s the sort of woman who tells her husband, “We do figure things out together; I just figure them out faster.”) And she’s well matched by David Aron Damane (“The Book of Mormon”), the miner-turned-millionaire who just can’t say no to his woman. Marshall surrounds them with a talented ensemble who shine in some of the more elaborate dance numbers.
There’s much to admire about this new version of “Molly Brown,” but the story tends to drag — in the first act, by postponing Molly’s emergence as a socialite, and in the second, by rushing through a dizzying parade of her ahead-of-their-time accomplishments. There’s also an odd disconnect in play here: This is a deliberately “woke” musical with ripped-from-the-headlines shout-outs to Sen. Elizabeth Warren and more open immigration laws — that’s also deliberately old-fashioned in structure, musicality and tone. Molly even espouses a deeply felt Christianity that manages to win over her anachronistically atheist best friend (Whitney Bashor).
As a truly gifted choreographer, Marshall must know that no dancer can succeed by planting each foot in two different eras or styles.