It has taken nearly 50 years for Meredith Willson’s 1960 Broadway musical to reach London, but now that it has, it sadly turns out not to have been worth the wait. The show - a fictionalised version of the real-life story of Margaret (Molly) Brown, which originally starred Tammy Grimes on Broadway but is best known for the 1964 film version featuring Debbie Reynolds - may have been redeemed by a little star charisma in the title role. But Abi Finley, one of the How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? finalists and now playing the title role here, can’t solve the problems of its clunky book and feeble characterisation that is dramaturgically as threadbare as Thom Southerland’s unadorned production is scenically and musically lacking.
I have often admired Southerland’s resourcefulness in the face of lack of resources in the past at venues such as the Union and the Broadway Studio Theatre. But faced with material that gives him little to work with, he cannot stop the show from sinking even faster than the title character experiences as a survivor of the Titanic disaster. Nor are musical matters helped by a cast, some of them doubling up as musicians to accompany MD Alex Weatherhill, who appear to be been tutored in their instruments by Harold Hill, the fake music teacher of Meredith Willson’s most famous show, The Music Man.
It sometimes seems amazing that Finley or Sean Pol McGreevy as her husband Johnny Brown manage to keep to the tune when the orchestra appear to be playing entirely against them. In the circumstances, both acquit themselves reasonably well, but even so, it is hard to care about the relationship that they try to chart between Molly’s socially aspiring ambitions. Having tried and failed to make it in Denver high society, they go to Europe instead to try to do so there instead, while all her loyal husband wants to do is return home.
Southerland’s production strangely botches the most interesting part of Molly’s story - it’s not until she’s actually on the lifeboat that we even realise she was on the Titanic at all. Unfortunately, though, there’s no lifeboat for the audience to get aboard - not even the score provides much of a respite from the overwhelming tedium or sense of amateur performance that hangs over the production.