Thursday, September 13, 2012

New Girl In Town -Interesting Look at O'Neill

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Carol Rosegg

The Irish Repertory Theatre has pulled an interesting curio out of mothballs, that being the musical New Girl In Town (book by George Abbott, music and lyrics by Bob Merrill). Based on Eugene O'Neill's drama Anna Christie, the show ran on Broadway for 431 performances between 1957 and 1958. However while New Girl In Town has a mostly good story and some wonderful acting, it does have one serious stumbling block towards the end.

In a New York City waterfront bar frequented by sailors, circa 1926, Swedish barge captain Chris Christopherson (Cliff Bemis), known to all as "Dutchy", receives the news that his daughter Anna (Margaret Loesser Robinson), whom he hasn't seen in years, will be coming to visit him. Dutchy, a hard-living man who likes his drink, music and the company of a good woman, is determined to clean up his act for his daughter's sake. This includes his getting rid of Marthy (Danielle Ferland), a former lady of the evening who is now his live-in love, so as not to expose Anna to such an influence. Needless to say, Marthy does not take the news well and sees Anna as a sort of rival for Dutchy's affections.

As it turns out, Dutchy need not have worried about showing Anna a seamier side of life, as such elements have been her constant companions for quite some time. Anna having experienced abuse, prison and working in her own house of ill-repute; all of which have turned her into a hard and somewhat broken woman. One who has come to New York not just to visit her father, but also to find a new home and hopefully a second chance at life. Just as Dutchy does not want Anna to see the man he actually is, so too Anna wants to protect Dutchy from her own sordid past.

Upon meeting, father and daughter take tentative steps toward reaching out to one another, with Anna then joining Dutchy on a boat trip. All is going smoothly when, one night at sea, the crew rescues several shipwrecked sailors. One of them, a strapping fellow named Matt (Patrick Cummings), instantly having eyes for Anna, while she finds herself feeling something for him. This does not sit well with Dutchy, who refuses to allow his daughter to become involved with a sailor. With storm clouds threatening the young couple before they can even get started, things take an even darker turn when someone from Anna's past emerges, causing Matt to realize his beloved is not as sweet and innocent as he thought, and as she desperately wanted him to believe.

There are certainly a lot of dramatic elements to work with here - this is not a musical comedy - and the show does a good job in keeping the feel of O'Neill's story. Musically, the various ensemble numbers are quite good, such as "Roll Yer Socks Up" and "At the Check Apron Ball". It also helps tremendously that the entire cast has a wonderful chemistry together, and one can feel the emotions of love, lust and desire between Robinson and Cummings, both of whom brilliantly bring their characters and situations to life - both in spoken word and in song.

Robinson's portrayal of Anna calls to mind Blanche DuBois, another lost soul trying to start her life again. But where Blanche cloaks her view of the world in illusion and denial, Anna is battling both naked bitterness and total emotional exhaustion. A good insight into Anna's character is when she's on her father's boat for the first time, completely exhilarated to be away from the sounds and smells of the city, and undergoing a sort of rebirth. Cummings has a trickier time with Matt, having to make the character appear both somewhat naive and unsympathetic on occasion, though he pulls the trick off surprisingly well, through the sheer power of his performance and the twinkle in his eye in the lighter moments. Bemis is very good at Dutchy, a formerly absent father trying to make up for his past choices, but at the same time is so overprotective, he threatens to keep his daughter from what may be her last chance at happiness. Ferland is good as Marthy, a sometimes comic relief, as well as a woman determined to hang on to her own piece of happiness and not willing to let anyone usurp it, for any reason.

The only problem with the show comes in its conclusion. After setting up the story and characters, putting many of them at cross purposes with ever-shifting alliances and feelings, the musical abruptly changes gears for an ending that seems to have been tacked on so as to wrap everything in a nice, neat package via a single song. However this feels markedly out of kilter for all that has come before. Since the show was conceived in a time before dark musicals were the norm on Broadway, the creators may have felt a happier finish was essential in order to appeal to audiences, but having gone so far in one direction, the sudden alteration, with no real explanation for such transition, makes the finale feel almost like a cheat, and as a result, the work ends up being far less than it could be.

The rest of the cast, many of whom play multiple roles, all do their jobs quite well. The various sets by James Morgan are excellent and the costumes by China Lee are enjoyable. Charlotte Moore's direction is nice and tight, allowing the show to move from the dramatic to the musical moments and back again. Choreographic work by Barry McNabb is also strong. Lighting by Mary Jo Dondlinger is good, especially when helping to create the scenes taking place on the water. Same is true for the sound design work by Zachary Williamson.

New Girl In Town is an enjoyable play with performances that are wonderful to see. It's just that things might have been better had the last ten minutes of the show been rewritten, or at least added to in order so that the final denouement could have made a little more sense. Still on the whole, it's enjoyable.

Also in the cast are Dewey Caddell, Abby Church, Matt Gibson, Kimberly Dawn Neumann, Alex Paulette, Amber Stone and Stephen Zinnato.

New Girl in Town

Featuring: Cliff Bemis (Chris Christopherson, a.k.a. "Dutchy"), Danielle Ferland (Marthy), Margaret Loesser Robinson (Anna), Patrick Cummings (Matt), Dewey Caddell (Larry/Ensemble), Abby Church (Pansy/Ensemble), Matt Gibson (Patrick/Ensemble), Kimberly Dawn Neumann (Pearl/Ensemble), Alex Puette (Oscar/Ensemble), Amber Stone (Lily/Ensemble), Stephen Zinnato (Charlie Clancy/Ensemble)

Orchestra: John Bell (Conductor/Keyboard), Jeremy Clayton (Reeds), Don Peretz (Percussion), Nick Russo (Guitar, Banjo), Orchestrations by Josh Clayton

Music and Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Book by George Abbott
Based on Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Music Direction by John Bell
Choreograph by Barry McNabb
Set Design: James Morgan
Costume Design: China Lee
Lighting Design: Mary Jo Dondlinger
Sound Designer: Zachary Williamson
Hair and Wig Design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Props: Rich Murray
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Video Design: Richard DiBella
Casting: Deborah Brown
Production Stage Manager: Christine Lemma
Assistant Stage Manager: Arthur Atkinson
Press Representative: Shirley Herz Associates
Production by CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Ticket: 212-727-2737 or
Running Time: Two Hours, with one intermission
Closes: September 14, 2012

No comments: