Irish-American playwright Eugene O’Neill is celebrated in the world of theatre. His plays tell of tragedy and despair, providing a raw look at the underbelly of society. One of O’Neill’s famous works comes to life at the Irish Repertory Theatre in a quaint musical adaption, with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill and book by George Abbott. New Girl in Town, based on O’Neill’s play Anna Christie, gives a lighthearted look at a young lady’s struggle for acceptance after a dark past of abuse. A revival of the original 1950s musical, this show, though not perfect, creates a charming old-fashion theatrical experience in an intimate space. Where the show fails in a solid plot and character development, it succeeds in capturing the ambiance of turn-of-the century New York City.
New Girl in Town revolves around Anna (Margaret Loesser Robinson), a former prostitute, who arrives in New York to see her father (Cliff Bemis), who she hasn’t seen since her childhood. Despite her father’s prejudice towards sailors, Anna is quickly enamored by a shipwrecked Irish seaman, Matt (Patrick Cummings). Yet, the couple’s love at first sight is complicated as the story unravels to reveal the mystery of Anna’s abusive past.
While this show is not your typical flashy Broadway spectacular, it is still well-produced and cleverly directed. Because the Irish Repertory Theatre is a small, yet beautiful venue nestled in Chelsea, the cast and crew have limitations when it comes to space. No large set pieces slide on and off the stage or magically descend from the ceiling. Instead, cast members quickly set each scene as an amazing solo saxophonist (Stephan Zinnato) serenades the audience. There is also no need for a large orchestra. Music is provided by a small band, situated at the corner of the theatre. Though a bit loud and sometimes ill-balanced with the actors’ singing, the band gives a saloon-like feel to the production.
The auditorium merely seats around 100 people and the stage leaves little room for big-number choreography. Nevertheless, the dancing is overall impressive (except for Anna’s odd interpretive dance solo halfway through the second act). The style is very timely, reminiscent of the simplicity of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
The production also makes due with a smaller cast consisting of actors with raw talent. Robinson has the sufficient acting-chops needed to portray Anna, an unconventional protagonist. Her singing voice may not be what many call “pretty,” but it is still filled with the anguish her character suffers. Cummings, who plays Anna’s love interest, has potential as a leading man although his subtle Irish accent comes and goes sporadically. He’s handsome and has a rich voice to match. I have no doubt that given time, these actors will be stars! Yet the standout of the evening is Bemis, a seasoned theatre actor who portrays Anna’s Swedish father. He commands the stage with his acting and singing, all while maintaining an unfaltering accent through the whole show.
While New Girl in Town graced the Broadway stage back in the 1950s, it is understandable why the show has never been revived. The score has some beautiful gems, but is forgettable. I was disappointed that musical numbers seemed to be cut short. Every song is sung stagnantly and never seems to build up to a climax. Character development is a bit weak. Anna and Matt’s relationship, which ought to be tense and complex, comes across as being a bit shallow and unrealistic. The dialogue throughout the show is very repetitive and littered with raunchy jokes that fall flat.
Despite its ups and downs, New Girl in Town is enjoyable to say the least. It’s a play that makes you question human nature. We ask ourselves whether people can truly change despite a harsh past. Can we truly forgive others?
Catch New Girl in Town at the Irish Repertory Theatre before curtains close on September 14th!