Musical Review







Thom Southerland in association with the Landor Theatre


The UK Premiere of

 The Unsinkable Molly Brown

 Music and Lyrics by Meredith Willson

 Book by Richard Morris

Presented by arrangement with Josef Weinberger Limited on behalf of
 Music Theatre International of New York

 27 May - Saturday 20 June 2009 



A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Given the exuberance of its heroine and the timeless topicality of its themes of class, determination and destiny, and the fact that it was a huge Broadway success, it’s rather curious that a production of this feisty little musical has never been staged in London’s West End.  Its composer, Meredith Willson, is of course, that same great purveyor of small town Americana who brought us The Music Man, and musical theatre has been all the richer for it. However, this seemingly lesser show could easily rest on its own lyrical laurels, for its score is infectiously punchy and poignantly sentimental in equal measures. My only former acquaintance with Molly had been the Hollywood film version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), starring perpetually girlish Debbie Reynolds, so I was eager to see how the large cast of this production would rise to the challenge of bringing her rags to riches story to life in the small (but cosy) space of the Landor Theatre. The film was one of the most popular cinematic musicals of the 1960’s, a golden age of sorts for such adaptations, as that era also featured definitive versions of My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and many other great musicals. The fact that Molly Brown managed to hold its own among such illustrious company would seem to deem it unsinkable, like it’s ‘never say no’ Titanic survivor heroine.

Tomboyish Molly Brown is dirt poor and stuck in a shack in Missouri with her hard drinking father and two argumentative brothers. To make matters worse, her father isn’t really her father, but just a kindly man who rescued her from a flood as a child and has brought her up as his own.  He reckons that the best thing for Molly would be a husband, but neither of her two ‘brothers’ is interested. To a more resigned gal, it might seem as though future prospects were non-existent, but Molly believes that fate can generally be coerced into reversing and aspires to acquire piles of money, a huge house, a red silk dress and a big brass bed. So, she sets off for gold-mad Denver.
Its nearly always worth your while seeing a large scale musical in a pared down venue, if only for the experience of being up close and personal, in the midst a big show, and this prospecting production is literally, worth its weight in gold in that regard. With a pianist, drummer, guitarist and various wind instrument players lining the sides of the performance space, the old familiar melodies began to waft through the air. A couple of the musicians manning, or should I say ‘womaning’ the wind section sounded decidedly off-key at times, but this may have been due to press night nerves as they were not players who’d lived long enough to have assumed the casualness only experience can grant. Once the show moved past its rather sluggish hillbillyish opening, it gathered enough momentum with the help of its musicians and leading lady, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maia? semi-finalist Abi Finley as Molly Brown on the lively opening number, ‘Belly Up to the Bar Boys,’ that things began to reach a more rousing pitch, although those unfamiliar with the show’s songs may not have been able to decipher its lyrics very clearly above the sound of its music.

Which, reminds me that a little note to those making up the programme is in order here – next time you compile the details for such a production, be sure to include a list of the show’s songs, preferably along with who is singing which number, so due credit can be given to the performers. Additionally, putting names with the actors’ photos might be appropriate as well.

Ms. Finely was aptly tom-boyish and scruffy as Molly in the beginning of the show and also, reluctantly starry eyed and gentler, both vocally and physically once she’d encountered and subsequently fallen for the man of her dreams, Johnny, wonderfully portrayed by Sean Pol McGreevy. Like Finely on the more upbeat number before him had done, McGreevy often drew cheers at the conclusion of his songs, with his lovely rendition of ‘I’ll Never Say No,’ one of Meredith Willson’s more sublime musical ballads inspiring mental if not audible sighs. Composer Willson’s ‘Till There Was You,’ from his other hit show, The Music Man actually became a chart topping single in America in the 1960’s when it was recorded by The Beatles with vocals by a then young Paul McCartney. But for my money, ‘I’ll Never Say No’ from this show tops that number in the romance stakes, especially as emotively sung by McGreevy, whose strong voice not only carried the words of the ballad very well, but also, vividly captured their meaning as tears literally streamed down his face during one moving reprisal. ‘Colorado, My Home’ was also a very memorable number, with McGreevy booming out the lead with able back up from members of the supporting cast. The fine portrayals of both of the stars of this show more than made up for the few stray sour notes our ears may have been subjected to from the wind section and are well worth the price of admission alone.

That said, thumbs up to all those high kicking it before an up-front fringe crowd on the as large scale as possible production numbers in this show, of which there are many. And to top that off there was more than one supporting performance worthy of mention here too, most notably among them: Richard Woolnough as cheery bar-keep Christmas Morgan, Julie Ross as Buttercup Grogan, Molly’s society rival’s ‘hidden’ working class mother and, admirably representing the Paris contingent, James Bartholomew as dapper Prince DeLong and Susan Travers as the warm but imposing Grand Duchess.

As biographical shows go, the storyline of this musical takes a very narrow view of the varied and fascinating life of Margaret Brown, a.k.a. ‘Maggie’, as her real life friends called her, (‘Molly’ being a name bestowed on Mrs. Brown posthumously by Hollywood alone), focusing as it does almost solely on her on again off again relationship with her husband J.J. Brown. Likewise, the adjective ‘unsinkable’ only became attached to the name ‘Molly Brown’ following Margaret Brown’s death. In real life, Margaret and J.J. remained close until his passing in 1909, though in actual fact the pair had agreed to separate after twenty-three years of marriage some time before, after which ‘Molly’ had become more fiercely independent than ever. There is no mention in the show of Mrs. Brown’s involvement with her many causes and charities, among them the plight of Denver miners, women’s rights and the rights of all workers to fair wages and working conditions, though it does show the couple freely offering money to those in need. But, as fate or luck would have it, apparently, Hollywood had the right to do as they pleased in terms of replacing fact with fiction, and chose to give Molly’s story a proverbial happy ending, despite, or possibly, due to the fact that following her death during the Great Depression, her estate was sold off by her two children for a mere $6,000.00.

It can’t be denied that at times this well-meaning production hovers between being amateur and professional. However, as the attributes Margaret Brown herself possessed occupied similarly comparative, but opposing fields, it becomes increasingly easy to accept the production’s occasional foibles as it moves along, and focus more on its finer moments. So much so that by the end of it, you may just find yourself cheering along with those who will invariably and enthusiastically shout Bravo!

(Tuesday - Saturday)
Matinee - Sun 31st May, 7th & 14th June at 3pm)

Ticket prices; Wednesday – Sunday £15 - £12 concessions
                                                                           Tuesday - all tickets £12



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