Eugene O’Neill’s 1927 play Anna Christie, New Girl in Town, is a melodrama about a prostitute who returns home to the sea captain father she hasn’t seen since childhood, allowing him to believe she’s a good girl down on her luck. Despite both mistrust of men and fear of his discovering the truth, she falls in love with a besotted sailor who also sees her as pure. Anna’s hopes are shattered by her father’s jealous common-law wife. The piece could’ve been transformed into a dark operetta. Instead, Bob Merrill and George Abbott turned it into a 1957 Broadway musical (a star vehicle for the young Gwen Verdon) which, though maintaining most of the storyline, became much lighter fare, including a more hopeful ending.
Merrill’s first attempt at a full score has few numbers specific to the plot, but manages to convey New York and its waterfront denizens at the turn of the century and to entertain in a straightforward fashion. Abbott’s book follows suit. Except for a problematic finale where things are resolved without an explanatory bridge, the musical is a pleasant chestnut made all the more palatable by its excellent production. Kudos to Deborah Brown for casting that not only imaginatively realizes character types but offers an age range, even in the chorus, which adds a touch of reality.
Cliff Bemis (Captain Chris Christopherson) plays credibly drunk when we first meet. His Swedish accent is seamless. “It’s good for to see you” could sound like a Muppet in the wrong hands. The actor gives us solidity, tenderness, and temper with facility. A deep baritone with slightly rough edges works well for the character.
Danielle Ferland (common-law wife, Marthy) walks on stage a confrontational wild card. Every abrasive word (she has the vernacular down) and sulky gesture contributes to the portrayal of a bitter, middle aged woman with no alternatives. I only wish she wouldn’t anticipate reactions.
Margaret Loesser Robinson (Anna) potently embodies an exhausted, battered soul in the uncaring universe. She has a way of appearing to think one thing, checking herself, and saying another evincing nuanced timing. Anna’s eventual, qualified submission to her deepest feelings seems real and unromanticized. Loesser Robinson gives us a whole, multifaceted woman with whom we can empathize. She sings beautifully and in character—“If That Was Love” is a prime example.
Patrick Cummings (Matt, the sailor) is the kind of old fashioned leading man who would’ve gone from musical to musical at the height of Hollywood’s populist infatuation with the genre. He’s handsome and masculine, has an extremely appealing, resonant voice and manages to play uncomplicated without ever seeming to fade on stage. The actor makes Matt’s conflict a real struggle, one that realistically echoes even when apparently resolved.
Stephen Zinnato (Charlie Clancy, Ensemble) wanders the stage ably playing saxophone during scene changes, taking focus away from what’s happening. He has a fine voice and dances with a confident wink, at one point leading the ensemble in a high energy soft shoe. The Ensemble includes good singers (harmony in “Sunshine Girl” is grand) and good dancers. Every member has energy and focus.
Director Charlotte Moore once again shows she can handle both deft, emotional two-handers and a stage filled with bodies. Moore keeps dialogue raw and reactions reflexive which evokes O’Neill. A sense of the piece’s social atmosphere pervades. Economy of movement and facial expression adds to the truth of the simple characters with whom we’re spending time. Pride is adroitly manifested. Inebriation is not over acted.
Barry McNabb’s Choreography meets the challenge of a small space with resounding success. Poised and awkward (Chris and Marthy) waltzes, a close-knit ensemble soft shoe, and theatrical bar girl numbers all work wonderfully well. Only with Anna’s balletic solo does McNabb falter by allowing her to be too graceful for ratcheting emotions.
Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis does a superior job with a roster of accents, both Swedish and Irish are outstanding. Mood is instantly established by James Morgan’s restrained Scenic Design which morphs with great versatility and minimal effort scene to scene. From inside the storefront of waterside Johnny’s (bar) to the top of a floating barge, surrounded by roughly painted sea and sky, choices effectively reflect the tone of the piece. Lighting Designer Mary Jo Dondlinger cleverly makes the stage appear larger with subtle back-illumination. Video Designer Richard Dibella’s simple moon is as pitch-perfect as his fireworks. And oh, what they do with fog!
China Lee’s Costume Design is great looking. Every outfit flatters, is appropriate to character and works in the aesthetically pleasing composition of a scene. Lee also has a fine sense of the disparate bodies with which she’s dealing. Robert-Charles Vallance contributes perfectly styled wigs.
John Bell—Conductor/Piano, Jeremy Clayton—Reeds, Don Peretz—Percussion, Nick Russo—Guitar & Banjo
1. Margaret Loesser Robinson, Patrick Cummings, Cliff Bemis
2. Cliff Bemis, Danielle Ferland
3. Margaret Loesser Robinson
New Girl in Town
Based on Anna Christie by Eugene O’Neill
Music & Lyrics by Bob Merrill; Book by George Abbott
Directed by Charlotte Moore
The Irish Repertory Theater
132 West 22nd Street
Through September 9, 2012
To buy discounted tickets to New Girl in Town on Goldstar click HERE