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New Girl In Town
The intent of the original mission was to primarily serve as a showcase for its star Gwen Verdon who had previously scored and was immediately established as a bright new star on Broadway in Damn Yankees. Verdon’s imprint on New Girl, as well as that made by choreographer Bob Fosse were apparently enough to offset any minimal criticism of the way that Broadway veteran George Abbott (who also directed) gingerly altered the play. Their collaboration undoubtedly succeeded in showing off the dramatic capability of its dancing star, as well as putting a spotlight on her formidable co-star Thelma Ritter (both of whom would share the Tony Award that spring for Best Leading Actress in a Musical) in an untypical for its time, blend of saucy comedy with weighty drama.
Notwithstanding the lilting and lyrical score delivered by Broadway newcomer, composer Bob Merrill, New Girl. . . has been a virtually ignored girl for the past fifty five years. No longer just a memory with a cast album, the new girl in town now is Margaret Loesser Robinson. As Anna the weary-for-home prostitute with a pronounced hatred for all men, Robinson is exceptionally pretty, multi talented, and one of a number of reasons to welcome this musical rarity. Having appeared most recently in the admired Irish Rep. production of Man and Superman, Robinson has been surrounded with a company of high-spirited able performers in a compactly designed production that seems quite at home on this small, sometimes inhospitable stage.
Set designer James Morgan has done wonders with a few boxes, crates, tables and chairs to evoke everything from a saloon, to a barge, ballroom or street against a backdrop of sea and grey skies. I also liked the rigging hung from the rafters that winds about the theater’s beams. Bravo to lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger for the excellent atmospherics that include an impressive fireworks display at sea, as well as a view of the Statue of Liberty.
What is more essentially inhospitable is the reduction of the O'Neill play which though melodramatically corny, did win the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The musical gives the impression of having to race from one plot point to the next, often with more rhyme than reason — unless the reasoning is to get as quickly as possible from one lovely song to the next. It was sensible, however, of director Moore to place the musical back to its original mid 1920s time frame, unlike the original show which for no apparent reason was at the turn-of-the-twentieth century. The 1920s era gave costume designer China Lee an opportunity to execute some lovely flapper-era frocks.
The show opens in Johnny the Priest’s New York waterfront saloon where the local fishermen and a trio of “sportin’ladies” are inclined to welcome all incoming seamen with a rousing ditty “Roll Yer Socks Up.” In keeping with the basic outline of the play, Anna has decided that she’s had enough (for reasons later divulged) of streetwalking in St. Paul, Minnesota and returned to New York to live with her elderly father Chris Christopherson (Cliff Bemis), a gruff, insensitive Swedish barge captain who hasn’t seen Anna since she was sent off as a child to live with relatives on a Minnesota farm where she was abused and raped. There is plenty of irony in the song “On the Farm” in which Anna alludes to her mistreatment.
Chris still thinks of Anna as his little girl and is happier to see her than is his often drunk past-her-prime common-law wife Marthy (a coarsely comedic performance by Danielle Ferland). To these eyes, it seems only yesterday that Ferland played the precocious Red Riding Hood in the original production of Into the Woods. Told to move out when Anna moves in, Marthy’s jealousy and insecurity is revealed in her amusing duet with Chris “Yer My Friend, Aintcha?”
Although Anna doesn’t fool Marthy, she finds peace with Chris as well as acceptance by the locals. Soon enough she is deeply in love with Matt Burke (Patrick Cummings), a good-looking uncomplicated sailor who is rescued at sea. Cummings has an appealingly resonant tenor voice and responds to Anna with the lovely ballad “Look at ‘Er.” They each have their turn to privately affirm their attraction to each other in the sprightly “It’s Good to Be Alive.”
Anna and Matt's lovely “Did You Close Your Eyes” hints at the melodic richness that was to emerge even more impressively in Merrill’s later scores for Take Me Along, Carnival (for which he wrote both music and lyrics) and Funny Girl (for which he wrote the lyrics to Jule Styne’s music). It is interesting to note that Merrill was not dissuaded from venturing a few years later back into O’Neill territory with Take Me Along, based Ah, Wilderness! Even more interesting, that O’Neill comedy was reconfigured t as a vehicle for comedian Jackie Gleason.
However disillusioned by the revelation of Anna’s past, Matt goes off on the next ship leaving Anna intent on salvaging what is left of her life. Be prepared, however, for the kind of happy ending that may not be exactly what O’Neill intended, but but which works within the bittersweet optimism that prevails in this version. Though I was disappointed to see that a personal favorite of mine, “There Ain’t No Flies on Me,” cut from this production, but then it was just an excuse for original choreographer Fosse to wedge another awesome dance number into the story. As it is, choreographer Barry McNabb has devised some nifty and lively dances for the small ensemble as well as giving the graceful Robinson a romantic reverie to dance following her poignant solo “If That Was Love.”
Praise goes to Josh Clayton’s orchestrations and the five talented musicians squeezed to the rear outer edge of the stage, a place where even the most intrepid streetwalker would not dare to venture. One effective device is having a saxophonist (Stephen Zinnato) wander ruefully through scene changes. Although there is a silly musical coda (“Chess and Checkers”) in which Marthy and a banner-carrying pro temperance group disrupt he lovers in a clinch, it is no more or less invasive than is Merrill’s welcomingly disarmingly score. If New Girl in Town isn't composed of the purist gold from the golden era, it is well intentioned enough to reflect the heart of one of dramatic literature’s most tarnished title characters.
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