Denver can never get enough of Molly Brown. Not that it wants to, or that Brown’s spirit would ever let her larger-than-life legacy be forgotten. If there ever is a sizable lapse between productions or even references to Brown’s eponymous Broadway musical, there is little doubt that Denver’s prodigal daughter would raise a ruckus from six feet under. She’d make sure Downtown denizens remember who’s boss.
There’s no cause for any paranormal rumblings yet, however, as Molly’s spirit is alive and delightfully well at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ production of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Director Kathleen Marshall and writer Dick Scanlan have reworked and reanimated the original 1960 book and lyrics to create a refreshing, zesty incarnation of “Molly” ripe for theatergoers of the 21st century. Scanlan in particular helped to pull this dusty book out of the Broadway mausoleum, adding seven entirely new songs, including four unreleased numbers by the show’s original lyricist, Meredith Wilson. Even if you’re an admitted “Molly” nerd, the show delivers no lack of virgin fodder to digest for the first time.
Over the 26 years the show covers, it continually strikes its pickaxe into a brilliant middle ground of a vintage pauper-to-princess musical and 21st century love story. What really stands out is the production team’s palpable desire to drag the tired story into the modern era. Even more evident is the fact that since Homo Erectus was scratching glyphs onto stone, tales of tumultuous relationships and unrequited love are tough to screw up. It’s a view the show thankfully upholds.
Under the campy tunes, goofy adages and yokel-mouthed accents is an intricate, grossly relatable tale of love lost. And even though it’s set on the dawn of the 20th century, that classic storyline rings all too true in 2014. The tale’s sincerity is entirely compliments of a vibrant cast, aptly commanded by the title heroine played by Colorado native Beth Malone. The show’s lead dazzles as a loudmouthed spitfire filled with punchy wisdom. Malone did her due diligence with voice and dialect coach Kathryn Maes, powerfully cranking out quotable line after line in an endearingly goofy country accent that teeters, but never tips into irritating. She sings and zings her way to a memory-searing performance, first putting her pipes on a pedestal in the bouncy, “The Wonderful Plan” and constantly peppering off mountainous maxims, like the pithy, “ignorance can be learned out of a person, but mean is forever.” Boom, hillbilly roasted.
The other half of the dynamic Brown duo is Burke Moses as J.J. Brown. He dishes up all sorts of old-school gravitas. Moses shows flashes of a delivery and attitude reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns. He gives the character the gritty exterior of John Wayne, but the gooey inside of a liberal arts major. His certifiable bleeding heart helps to drench the touchy relationship between the two protagonists with sincerity, and he manages to tone down the absurdity found in earlier versions of the show just enough to allow some genuine heartbreak to peer through. That “she loves me, she loves me not” notion of tearfully plucking rose petals is where the play really scores in that it’s devastatingly familiar to many a lovelorn soul. The highs are high, but the lows – while they don’t take you to the bottom of the Marianas – they certainly tug out some melancholy pity and woeful solidarity.
Apart from the gooey “I can’t live with ya, I can’t live without ya” jumbo that magnetizes the spotlight in this rendition, many of the other Scanlan and Marshall additions score big. The heartiest laughs of the show come at the hands of an entirely new, slapstick scene that takes jabs at the snooty Louise Sneed-Hill. The digs at the pompous antagonist come in the form of she and her posse getting “accidentally” drunk on whiskey and draping themselves and their gaudy tea party gowns all over the stage. It’s Mel Brooks-ish, but anytime a production manages to capture members of the Bourgeoisie in an altered state it’s sure to garner some har-hars.
A jumbled timeline is the new show’s only weakness. Things start off with Molly and a crew of frostbitten souls in a lifeboat after the downing of the Titanic, and from there the yarn is spun as a series of flashbacks as Molly recounts her life to a fellow damsel in distress. What starts off as an evenly paced movement through time gets jumbled toward the end of the second act – years flying by left and right as Molly philanthropically gallivants around Europe. The hustled pick up – as well as the less than impressive cardboard cutouts of the Le Tour Eiffel and Big Ben that pale to the hulking interactive mining sets in act one – lead to a rushed, bookend conclusion when the audience is finally whisked back to the middle of the frigid Atlantic.
Overall, the show shimmers with proud performances that would surely make the real Margaret Brown smile and inevitably unleash some cantankerous, benevolent quip. On top of honoring the capital’s captain, the script is strongly geared toward Coloradans and is one that any Denverite will find heartwarmingly inside baseball. Hearing references to the Rocky Mountain News, camping on Mount Elbert, and the unpredictable Front Range weather, is all but guaranteed to at least bring about a solemn nod of the head. It remains to be seen if fans of a certain street in midtown Manhattan can be so taken by the charm of mountain hijinks and Colorado-geared guffaws, but the wowing performances here could make them palatable to even the saltiest East Coast curmudgeon.
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The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Runs through Oct. 26.
6:30 p.m. Tuesday – Thursday
7:30 p.m. on Friday & Saturday
1:30 p.m. on Saturday & Sunday
The Stage Theatre at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, corner of Speer St. & Arapahoe St., Denver.
Tickets start at $49. Call 800-641-1222 or visit denvercenter.org for more information.