Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

The Unsinkable Molly Brown
St. Louis Municipal Opera
Review by Richard T. Green


Marc Kudisch and Beth Malone
Photo by Phil Hamer
It was 97 degrees at curtain time on opening night in the 10,787 seat outdoor theater of the Muny Opera, but a lush overture played by a full orchestra, plus large electric fans overhead, lulled us into an instant state of relaxation. And in spite of the heat and humidity and wigs and costumes, the whole show was played 100% for keeps—with great singing and dancing, high production values, and acting that is unexpectedly naturalistic. Pinch yourself, because it really is the Muny Opera in its 99th season.

Beth Malone (grown Alison, in both the Off-Broadway and Broadway cast of Fun Home) is brash and bright and full-on show gal as Molly, singing the hell out of every number, feisty and funny and true every minute, in a heavily revised version of Meredith Willson's 1960 show. Marc Kudisch plays her husband J.J., rueful and just as deeply authentic as she, in their many (many) head-butting scenes together. They still climb from a Leadville, Colorado, mine to the top of Denver society, but Mr. Kudisch (who has a wonderfully unaffected, folksy singing voice) has a character arc that's far more interesting in this new version.

For various reasons, I haven't been to the Muny in awhile, but this is the most distinguished production I've ever seen there (in terms of overall quality) in the last 40 years of on-and-off attendance. Unlike a lot of Muny shows from the 1970s and '80s, this one actually seems to have been "directed." In this case, it's by director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, who previously workshopped this new Molly in Denver with librettist Dick Scanlan (author of the stage musical of Thoroughly Modern Millie, with Jeanine Tesori and Richard Morris). Thanks to Scanlan and Marshall, Molly now blends Willson's lovely music with richer history, more challenging performance, and even a degree of ideology that seems light years from the original.

Some old songs have been removed, and others added from the Willson estate. The still-visible outlines of the original story now resemble an 1895-ish blueprint for our modern, liberal Great Society, based on the generally unknown facts and philosophy of the play's real-life heroine. (Mr. Kudisch, as J.J. Brown, supplies conservative arguments as counterpoint, in their very down-to-earth debates.)

But it's funny—where Mr. Willson's 1957 masterpiece The Music Man looks back in time, and uses nearly every word in the script to build the memory of a deliciously quaint small-town America, right before World War I, Mr. Scanlan's revised Molly Brown does the very opposite: projecting a vision forward from the 1890s, toward the tax-supported social safety net that would be taking shape decades later, seemingly inspired by Molly's real-life spirit of noblesse oblige.

With very much the same style and pace of Dolly Gallagher Levi, blithely handing out business cards on all fields of her expertise in the opening number of Hello, Dolly!, we watch here as a high def Molly Brown sweeps through Denver, creating the idea of student aid, women's shelters, animal shelters, and even the juvenile justice system, all with the wave of a hand, on the spot, after she and her husband strike it rich. She even becomes Moses-like, finally arriving in New York as a survivor of the Titanic, treating a customs officer as a sort of pharaoh when he threatens to turn back a crowd of undocumented immigrants. Molly does not specifically say, "Let my people go," but it amounts to the same thing.

I actually did see Debbie Reynolds at the Muny, reprising her film role as Molly Brown in a week-long revival of the stage musical (probably in her 1989 visit, though she returned to perform it here multiple times). Anyway, there's no comparison between what I remember from that production and this highly revised incarnation today. Ms. Reynolds was a movie star with a pleasant voice and loads of charm. But everything about her performance, and the 1960 libretto, seemed two-dimensional (I think Harve Presnell was her co-star, but then again he co-starred in lots of things at the Muny). You could call Ms. Reynolds' Molly a "Hollywood version" of the original stage musical (for which Tammy Grimes won a Tony). And back in the 1980s at the Muny, an eyewitness tells me, the producer would spend more time schmoozing with the traveling guest stars than actually developing a fresh show every week. Things seem vastly different thirty-five years later, with multiple-Tony winner Mike Isaacson (for Fox Associates) serving as Artistic Director and executive producer.

By comparison, this week's Molly Brown seems strictly from Broadway—by way of Denver, of course. And each time the lengthy dialogs (covering worker and immigrant rights and even structural engineering) are swept aside one by one, a whole battalion of stylish dancers comes high-stepping right on stage each time to remind us of what a big, confident musical can do. There are cavorting miners, and very gay can-can girls, and Ms. Malone right alongside, thrashing it all out with unstoppable enthusiasm and fine singing for nearly three hours.

You come out of it all with a heightened sense of respect for its real-life heroine, and for Ms. Malone herself, who holds it all aloft in the midst of a particularly murderous St. Louis summer. The huge LED backdrop is very beautifully done, with depictions of the icy majesty of the Rocky Mountains in act one, or glowing with giant reproductions of elegant antique postcards from Europe in act two. Performance highlights include David Abeles' Germanic singing solo, and Justin Guarini's especially wonderful turn as a romantic Italian tenor. Whitney Bashor is excellent as Molly's long-time friend, and Patty Goble is great as a tipsy dowager. I'm going to skip the usual list of every single actor and production artist involved, as it seems nearly a cast and crew of thousands, though there's not a slacker in the bunch.

The show runs about two hours and fifty minutes, starting at 8:15 p.m., with the traditional singing of "The Star Spangled Banner."

Through July 27, 2017, at the St. Louis Municipal Opera in Forest Park MO. For more information visit www.muny.org


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