STAGE REVIEW : ‘Molly Brown’ Is Unsinkable 25 Years After the Movie

“The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” which opened on Broadway the week before J.F.K. defeated Richard Nixon, has resurfaced in an ambitious, slightly altered form starring durable Debbie Reynolds at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera.

The show was always calculated, homespun and brassy, and the LBCLO production, following an out-of-town tuneup in Houston, doesn’t tinker with those popular, cornfed ingredients. The production does spice them up, though, particularly with a new and stronger opening set aboard the Titanic, fresh design elements, and the addition of a rousing vocal number (“He’s My Friend”) which composer Meredith Willson wrote for the 1964 film.

Now, 25 years later, Reynolds and co-star Harve Presnell are reprising their roles from that MGM movie. They are in shape to get the job done. In the theater program bio, Reynolds (Miss Burbank at 17) lets her age stand at 57. (It’s rare for an actress, not to mention a hoofer with 40 years in the business, to permit that kind of candor.)

Reynolds still has her knockabout dancing legs, and her raspy voice fills the air like a rusty buzz saw. She lacks a large singing voice, but she can turn a nice plaintive ballad in Willson’s touching “My Own Brass Bed.” As for the show’s vocal power, the tall, lanky Presnell is in better form than ever. (Theater fans may recall Reynolds and Presnell’s other local stage match-up in “Annie Get Your Gun” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1977.)

In fact, it’s Presnell as the millionaire Colorado miner (whose marriage to the illiterate, spunky Molly Brown brings her everything but respectability), who is the artistic linchpin of the production. Reynolds’ fans, on whom this production depends, probably won’t see it that way.


She has her joyous moments deflating pomposity with her big mouth and once, in the gauche-red parlor of Molly Brown’s mansion, she negotiates a whooping body flip in the production’s show-stopping number. But Reynolds’ rowdy cheer on occasion is self-serving and she tends to mug in the more physical scenes.

Of course, this is Reynolds’ show, just as it was Tammy Grimes’ in the 532-performance Broadway run between 1960-62 (where Presnell originated his mountaineering “Leadville” Johnny Brown character). The book by Richard Morris is too much a comic strip to live without these star turns.

For Reynolds (who seems to reach up to only Presnell’s belt line), Molly Brown fits such a recognizable public image that she seems almost typecast. Her gaucheries and toughness make Molly the darling of European society, despite the painful brushoffs by the bluebloods of Denver’s inner circle. (The book is based, with lots of license, on the real-life title character Margaret Tobin Brown (1867-1932) who became a legend in her lifetime.)

In vivid supporting portraits, a brittle Simon McQueen archly characterizes Midwestern snobbery. And the continental, suave Francesco Sorianello applies splendid operatic resonance to a dandified French prince. The sharpest character vignette, though, is by Jeff Austin as the show’s butler, a pinprick of a role notable for its pristine stuffiness.

The Monte Carlo scenes brim with choreographic panache designed by Ed Kerrigan, the Titanic sinking (don’t worry, our heroine is unsinkable) is richly conveyed by scenic designer Randy Wright, and the women’s costumes are period gems from costume designer Paco Macliss.

As an index to the show’s unevenness, the same designers are not nearly as successful with the Western country motifs. Reynolds, too, is a much better actress when she’s the worldly Molly Brown as opposed to the rough ‘n’ tumble Irish tomboy from Hannibal, Mo.

Director John Bowab’s plodding and cartoony first act is no competition for his more propulsive second act, notwithstanding a hokey brawl that looks like amateur night at the old Olympic Auditorium. And, finally, Willson’s music (which was his theatrical follow-up to “The Music Man”) is rewarding for only three or four distinctive numbers. Molly’s “I Ain’t Down Yet” and Johnny’s “I’ll Never Say No” will survive the longest.

This is a major business undertaking for Reynolds, who will assume majority financial control of the production at the conclusion of its LBCLO run, and take the show on an extensive national tour, to last through most of the year. It’s a good bet for the road. The patrons at the Saturday opening loved it.

At the Terrace Theatre, Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 21. Tickets: $15-$30; (213) 432-7926 or (714) 826-9371.