The American musical reinvents itself all the time but what always stays the same is the artifice. Take THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN. The Meredith Wilson/Richard Morris musical creates an entertaining portrait of the spunky upstart from Missouri who survived the Titanic disaster, among other achievements --- but you wouldn’t call it biography. You would call it a rousing good time, “big brass band, Meredith Wilson-style.”
I don’t know of any revivals since the Broadway run in the ‘60s so if Wellesley College Theatre hadn’t presented it this past weekend, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see it on stage. Nora Hussey’s theater students (and some ringers from the Wellesley professional theatre) made that yarn believable, about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. This was America just before the turn of the 20th century when dreamers rushed to Colorado to strike it rich in the silver mines. Molly’s husband hits a vein and the rest is, well, artifice.
Co-director David Costa catches lightning in a bottle, giving us a spirited taste of the Wild West (from the settler perspective, of course) where prospectors, gamblers and prostitutes live it up after a hard day at the mines, dancing and singing and brawling their hearts out. (Kudos to Jenny Tang for the lively music and to Colleen Royal for the boisterous dance.)
More than a few of those men are portrayed by women (this being a women’s college) and they’re portrayed exceptionally well. All the characters ring true, with standout performances from Marge Dunn as the unstoppable Molly, from Will Bouvier as her exceedingly patient husband and from John Davin as her wisecracking, truth-telling, whiskey swilling father. In the supporting roles, Charlotte Peed has a touching turnaround as a snobby socialite and Will Keary makes us feel sorry for a Prince!
One musical which isn’t dated in the least is Frank Loesser’s GUYS AND DOLLS. Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows reveled in artifice, leading those Damon Runyon characters from pillar to post in search of a place for a crap game. This was the ‘40s when men were men and gamblers wore suits and ties! Of course, we know the creators are playing fast and loose with reality but that’s what makes the musical pay off.
The North Shore Music Theatre’s current version of the classic is now my favorite, with simply delicious performances from Jonathan Hammond as an overburdened Nathan Detroit (poor fellow, he’s stressed to the max) to Mylinda Hull as his beloved, insistant fiancé (fourteen years makes one a bit hysterical). Where do I start? Mark Martino’s exuberant production even enlivens the romantic plot (Sky Masterson and Miss Sarah), which I confess I usually dismiss. Kevin Vortman and Kelly McCormick are charming AND FUNNY, to boot!
Wayne W. Pretlow rocks the “Sit Down” number and Michael Lichtefeld’s “Luck Be a Lady” ballet literally levitates. Craig Barna’s little extras in the music department are divine and Paula Peasley-Ninestein’s costumes are to die for. From the ingenious “Fugue for Tinhorns” opening to the final “Guys and Dolls” closing anthem, not one second is uninspired.