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Album Review: THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN Revamps a Classic

Album Review: THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN Revamps a Classic

The 2020 off-Broadway production gets a fresh cast recording.

Let's start this off with the obvious: this is not quite The Unsinkable Molly Brown you remember. Billed as a "revisal" of the classic musical, the 2020 cast recording features Beth Malone as the iconic, irrepressible heroine, but with rather a different sound than vintage-musical lovers might be expecting.

Librettist Dick Scanlan has thoroughly revised the book of the musical, originally seen on Broadway in 1960, while also cutting some songs, adding others from Meredith Wilson's catalog, and even adding some fresh lyrics here and there. The result is something that feels very 21st-century, for better and for worse.

We start with a fierce declaration of "I Ain't Down Yet," courtesy of Tony nominee Beth Malone as Molly. She's tough, funny, brash, and bold, and that opening song may as well be her anthem. The revised version of the musical draws more on the real Brown's history, rather than the established musical-comedy tropes through which the previous version of the musical was told. She's a reformer, a progressive, and a champion of social causes from women's suffrage to labor unions and immigration reform.

It's easy to dismiss these additions as modern additions pasted onto a woman who lived over a century ago, but in fact, they're (mostly) true to the life of the real Molly Brown, which makes it all the more remarkable. The struggle, unfortunately, is that the plot - and, by extension, the cast album - tends to stick mostly to one series of events, repeated over and over again: Molly comes up against an obstacle, Molly applies her grit and folksy charm; Molly wins over the enemy. Rinse and repeat. As a result, the score - both the parts pulled from the original song list and those interpolated in - tend to have a corresponding feeling of sameness. It's not bad, it's just repetitive at times.

Malone, however, is vibrant, giving her all to put her own stamp on a role that could easily fall into parody or homage. She's brassy and belt-y when called for, and in those moments where she gets to touch on Molly's tender side, like on the 11 o'clock "Wait For Me," she finds those deeper emotions that have largely been skated over in favor of that girl-power gloss. She's beautifully matched by David Aron Damane as JJ Brown, Molly's adoring though flawed husband. With Damane's warm, lovely baritone on songs like the classic "I'll Never Say No," it's easy to be charmed by his JJ, just as Molly is despite it all.

The cast, truly, is what elevates this from a simple half-revival/half-jukebox to something with snappy, joyous energy. Whitney Bashor as Molly's widow friend Julia, Paula Legett Chase as snooty society matron Louise Sneed Hill, and Nikka Graff Lanzarone as the pushy mayor's wife Baby Doe Tabor all add different kinds of energy (specifically, female energy) to Molly's orbit, serving both as foils and friends. Still, they each have one specific personality trait, and pretty much stick to it. While JJ's requisite friends Vincenzo (Omar Lopez-Cemero), Erich (Alex Gibson), and Arthur (Paolo Montalban) get to let it rip on big numbers like "Belly Up to the Bar, Boys," they likewise get to represent tropes more than characters.

In some ways, despite the apparent "modern" twist on the story, the updated score feels very vintage in its structure. Early on, for instance, JJ's trio of pals sing "Just Becuz," one of the newly-added songs from Wilson's trunk: a playful little ditty about having a crush on a girl. It's silly and simple and doesn't need to be a song, but it fits into that old-school musical theatre trope of having background characters sing the plot at a main character. Similarly, an Act 2 can-can number is light on the plot and light on the ear - fun in a way that won't necessarily change your life, but will make you smile.

In the end, that's largely the feeling that one gets from the entire cast recording: not entirely necessary, but charming, pleasant, and fun. Despite these limitations, it's clear in every note that the talented performers are giving 110% - Molly would be very proud.

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