- CHARITY BENEFIT
Reviewed by Joe Regan Jr. - July 28, 2012
Pop songwriter Bob Merrill’s first Broadway show was New Girl in Town in 1957 which was based upon Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Anna Christie which most people today remember for Greta Garbo’s movie version, her first talkie. As a matter of fact, Merrill was under contract to MGM to write a musical version for Doris Day. When the studio didn’t go ahead with the project Merrill took his score to Broadway and the director of the original production, Mr. George Abbott, wrote the book. The musical’s Anna was Gwen Verdon and the Marie Dresser part of Marthy was expanded into a co-starring role played by Thelma Ritter. Verdon and Ritter shared the Best Actress Tony for that season and the musical was choreographed by Bob Fosse. Inevitably, there were elaborate dance numbers and an erotic ballet in the second act featuring Anna’s past life as a whore. It’s one of the few Tony winners that isn’t revived much. There was a revival a few years ago at Goodspeed but there wasn’t much dancing in it. Having seen the original and the Goodspeed production, I have a basis for comparison.
Charlotte Moore, the artistic director of the Irish Repertory Theatre, has done a brilliant job of paring down the show for the theatre’s small stage. The Irish Repertory Theatre has won many awards for its revivals of many O’Neill plays. New orchestrations for six musicians by Josh Clayton never diminish the richness of the music (neglected for many years, although “Look at ‘er” has been done in some Merrill tribute cabaret shows and “It’s Good to Be Alive” was a single hit for Sylvia Sims). For the record, John Bell is the conductor/keyboard player; Jeremy Clayton is on reeds, Doc Peretz is on percussion, and Nick Russo plays guitar and banjo. One of the great touches of the production is that Moore has actor-dancer-saxophone player Stephen Zinnato play on stage throughout, weaving in and out of the scenes like an Our Town Stage Manager, always a strong presence. Zinnato doubles as one of the sailors and leads the sailors and bar girls in a great tap number “The Sunshine Girl (Has Raindrops in Her Eyes”).
Without a great dancer in the lead, Moore’s direction focuses wisely on the human drama on stage. Anna, a woman with a checkered past, joins her father, Old Chris Christopherson, Captain of a coal barge shuttling between Boston and New York. On a foggy July 4th night in 1926, a sailor is pulled from the dark waters of the Atlantic. As the fog clears, Anna’s and Matt Burke’s eyes meet and their lives are changed forever.
She has cast beautiful blond singer actress Margaret Loesser Robinson as Anna and young, tall, and drop dead handsome Patrick Cummings as Matt, the sailor who falls in love with Anna. From the moment Cummings sings the very strong verse to “Look At ‘er” it is clear that this is a major talent, and you believe those two lost souls are deeply in love. I don’t remember their duet from previous productions, but a breathtaking piece of beauty is “Did You Close Your Eyes,” the duet after they finally kiss.
Most of Barry McNabb’s choreography features the entire company and the big whore ballet is omitted for a short desperate dance for Anna which Loesser Robinson executes gracefully. Her featured role in the big ensemble number to “Ven Ve Valse” has Anna tossed from man to man and doing many full flips and Loesser Robinson’s performance never lets you forget the emotions going on in Anna’s head.
The role of Marthy is skillfully played by veteran actress Danielle Ferland. She doesn’t have Ritter’s personality and some of the mean lines that Ritter made sound funny come out hard. Ferland holds her own vocally (two of her numbers are “Flings” and “Yer My Friend Aintcha”) and is very strong in the finale, leading “Chess and Checkers,” an anthem for a sailors’ home. Cameron Proud’homme played old Chris in the original production and Cliff Bernie plays him very humanly and has a beautiful voice when he sings.
All in all, it’s a wonderful production and I hope this scaled down version finds lots of future productions. It’s highly recommended for all musical theatre lovers and they will be pleasantly surprised and moved by this dramatic musical.
New Girl in Town continues to play at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, through September 9. Performance times are Wednesdays at 3pm and 8 pm, Thursdays at 7 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm. The box office telephone number is (212) 727-2737. There are discount rush tickets for Students, Seniors and groups. The website for the Irish Repertory Theatre is www.irishrep.org