Theatre Review: New Girl in Town

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Margaret Loesser Robinson, Patrick Cummings , Cliff Bemis (Carol Rosegg)
How It’s New York: Irish Rep is one of the city’s best producing houses, and the cast is full of NY regulars. What’s more, Eugene O’Neill spent a lot of time here.
How It’s Irish: O’Neill was of Irish descent, and the romantic lead, Matt, is an Irishman.
A musical based on a play by Eugene O’Neill? Why not? Charlotte Moore gets every drop of romantic comedy out of New Girl in Town, based on Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. 
An earlier version of this review was published in Irish Examiner USA, August 14.

We Like This New Girl

New Girl in Town, currently running at Irish Repertory Theatre through September 14 (in an extension announced last week), brings out the romantic comedy in Eugene O’Neill.

This is not so much of a stretch as you might think.
Underneath the angst and alongside the lyricism, O’Neill has always had a strong clutch on the well-made play, thanks in part to his training with George Pierce Baker at the 47 Workshop.
Anna Christie, on which New Girl in Town is based, is a girl-meets-boy-girl loses boy-girl-gets-boy story, really.

It’s deeply romantic, fierce in its passion. It’s the play, reportedly, in which Liam Neeson and the late Natasha Richardson fell in love, portraying the sea-crossed lovers at the Roundabout in 1993.
If you saw that production, as I did, it remains indelible in your heart. You swoon just thinking of it.
She was golden; he was glorious, and the electricity between them was unmistakeable. The pain was there, sure, but buried beneath the passion.

New Girl in Town, directed by Charlotte Moore, Irish Rep’s Artistic Director, travels those lines too.
Moore has put together a very strong cast, particularly Margaret Loesser Robinson, so good as Violet in Man and Superman, as Anna, the reformed hooker with a pure soul.
Bob Merrill’s music and lyrics are occasionally pedestrian, but also sometimes bring out the fun and emotion in the story, and George Abbott’s book nicely boils down O’Neill’s poetry to the play’s well-made bones.

The musical was on Broadway in 1957, nominated for Tony awards for choreographer Bob Fosse, stars Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter, and Best Musical. Ritter and Verdon won theirs.
The cast was much larger, and the show ran for about a year. Irish Repertory Theatre’s production is the first full staging since that run.

Margaret Loesser Robinson (Carol Rosegg)

The story takes place in 1926, around the sea, an obsession for O’Neill.
Chris Christopherson (Cliff Bernis), an older sailor, anxiously awaits the visit of his little daughter Anna, whom he left safely, he thought, on a farm in the midwest when his wife died.
He’s involved with the blowsy, hilarious Marthy (Danielle Ferland), who becomes a little put-out when she’s pretty much thrown over for the pure (as Chris thinks) daughter.

We soon learn that Anna was molested on the farm and had a brief career as a hooker before coming to see Daddy.She’s jaded and wary, but soon domesticates, from some cleansing time on a barge with her father, and a new beginning.
When Matt (Patrick Cummings) washes on board, he takes her at first for a mermaid.
He’s a captain who saved several of his men, before being rescued by Chris.
Matt, like Chesley Sullenberger of the amazing Hudson landing, becomes an instant hero to the press.

Being Irish, Matt is all the more attracted when Anna at first rejects him. Asked “Are you Irish?” He replies “I am, thank God.”

Having discovered on first meeting that she was the captain’s daughter, not his fancy woman, Matt decides she’s an angel. Her rejecting any physical advances only convince him more of her purity.
This is ironic, of course, given Anna’s past. We, and Marthy, know that she was no nurse’s aide.
She tries to hint to Matt but he’s having none of it. She is resisting, we know, because she doesn’t want to live a lie, but she is won over by her own feelings for him.

Girl loses boy for two reasons: first, Chris hates the idea of her marrying a sailor, and then, at a ball, no less, Marthy gets drunk and lets the truth about Anna slip. But it all comes right in the end.

The ensemble  (Carol Rosegg)

As a musical, New Girl in Town is a little hit or miss. The prostitutes who frequent the saloon are dancers, so look far prettier and fitter than a prostitute should look.
In fact, I was jonesing for one of their dresses (gorgeous costumes by China Lee).

This is not their fault, and it’s an issue with musicals in general, but though we were told of things being rather seedy, it’s just not what we saw. 

Most of the music is pretty forgettable, though sweet enough.
Anna’s solo “On the Farm,” where she half tells her father about everything that happened to her, has a sudden Sondheim-directness to it, and Robinson pours emotion into it.

But there are a few too many songs that just reiterate what we’ve just seen, like Anna’s “It’s Good to Be Alive,” about how much better she feels on the sea, or Matt’s “Look at ‘Er,” about Anna.
“Look at ‘Er,” gorgeously sung by Cummings, does have lovely lyrics (“The reason I am alive is just to look at ‘er”) but the song would be more effective if it were more artfully placed.
Cummings has appeal but lacks fire, and the connection between him and Robinson doesn’t really sizzle, somehow.

Lyrics too are often just serviceable, such as “flings is wonderful things.”

Cliff Bernis, Danielle Ferland (Carol Rosegg)

Not so the connection between Ferland’s Marthy and Bernis’ Chris, who are just a treat.
Their duet “Yer My Friend, Aintcha?” as they kid and dance and bicker and make up, is just delightful, as is “Ven I Valse,” a number by the whole company at the “check apron ball,” which closes Act 1.

And Robinson has fragility, fire and a gorgeous voice. As a star should, she pulls attention whenever she appears.

Act II flies by, and opens with a kind of barbershop quartet of a period-style piece called “Sunshine Girl,” which gives the ensemble a chance to show what they can do – and they can do a lot. Barry McNabb’s choreography, as ever, puts a smile on your face.
Charlotte Moore keeps the action spritely and quick. For those who find O’Neill heavy going, with his dialects and his sometimes overblown lyricism, New Girl in Town will be an eye-opener.

Moore’s direction shows off the showmanship in O’Neill, while keeping the pathos intact.

This new girl is one you will be glad to meet.
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Copyright 2012 New York Irish Arts