'Molly Brown' Has Trouble Keeping Good Fun Afloat


Get out the life vests. Meredith Willson's "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" at La Mirada Theatre is an attractive but fatally flawed vessel that collides with its own dramatic inadequacies.

"Unsinkable" is a textbook example of why so many current composers have abandoned the standard Broadway formula and ventured into more organically based and innovative musical forms. Willson's unwieldy show lumbers through the tall corn with little grace and less substance. Dialogue passages, even entire musical sequences, are often used as mere filler to wile away time while some massive set change or other is going on just behind the backdrop. Substantial, this is not.

A wily veteran of the musical-theater circuit, director Glenn Casale does a herculean job in keeping the proceedings as buoyant as possible, providing enough eye candy to distract from Richard Morris' so-so book and Willson's painfully undistinguished score.

J. Branson's sets, holdovers from a previous production in Wichita, Kan., are impressively lavish, while Jose M. Rivera's from-scratch costumes are dazzling, a towering achievement for this small regional theater.

But, however you bejewel or bedizen it, this star vehicle rises and falls upon the abilities of the actress playing Molly. Cathy Rigby shoulders her burden womanfully, but it's a tall order for the tiny former gymnast.

Rigby is most successful playing Molly in her hoydenish youth, before she and her husband, Johnny Brown (Christopher Carl), strike it rich in the Colorado gold fields. Athletic and game, Rigby pratfalls and mugs with vaudevillian aplomb. She's quite a nifty hoofer too, careening through choreographer Patti Colombo's lively dance sequences without a misstep.

Once Molly cleans up and dresses up, though, Rigby stiffens up, never achieving the heights of glorious vulgarity that would put this klunker over the top. Perhaps this muted Molly could rankle the elite of provincial Denver, but it's doubtful she would make such a huge splash with the jaded European aristocracy.

Carl also has problems playing Johnny, Molly's mountain-man millionaire. Despite a gorgeous voice that could set your knees trembling, Carl's Johnny seems a shade too dapper and clean-cut to have hailed so recently from the rough-and-tumble gold camps.

While ably executing the logistical requirements of this sprawling show, Casale fails to help Rigby and Carl find the texture and veracity in their characters. Granted, Molly and Johnny are larger-than-life archetypes that should be played on the edge of parody. Yet certain scenes--like the one in which Molly inadvertently burns up a fortune in the cabin stove--are emotionally hollow, devoid of that hint of genuine reaction that would lend them resonance.

Comic relief is provided by Lyle Kanouse as the saloon owner who befriends Molly in her early days.

* "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends April 16. $34. (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6150. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Cathy Rigby: Molly Brown

Christopher Carl: Johnny Brown

Lyle Kanouse: Christmas Morgan

Joy Claussen: Mrs. McGlone

Michelle Elise Duffy: Princess DeLong

Robert Mammana: Prince DeLong

Will MacMillan: Shamus Tobin

K.W. Miller: Michael Tobin

Jim Raposa: Aloysius Tobin

John B. Williford: Patrick Tobin

Hank Wilson: Monsignor Ryan

Music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. Book by Richard Morris. Directed by Glenn Casale. Set by J. Branson. Costumes by Jose M. Rivera. Lighting by Martin Aronstein. Sound by Julie Ferrin. Musical director Dennis Castellano. Choreographer Patti Colombo. Hair/wigs by Monica Lisa Sabedra. Production stage manager Gina Farina.

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