I adore theater that makes you think. This show forced me to do a lot of thinking. As a student of geography, I study the impact of scale on analysis--so here I tease out my thoughts on four individual scales, in hopes of offering a more complete picture.
Before the show begins, Ten Thousand Things production manager Nancy Waldoch rushes into the center of the theater-in-the-round set-up to thank the crowded house and to share a touching letter from a recent audience member. Known for their dedication to performing in unconventional and therefore fervently necessary spaces--from prisons to shelters, churches to libraries--TTT commits to inviting different kinds of bodies and voices into their performances. And this particular letter--one you simply have to hear in person for yourself--illustrates their impact with the daring declaration that “I too can be unsinkable.”
Steeped in the personal history of TTT as the first musical they produced, revitalizing The Unsinkable Molly Brown 15 years later symbolizes the triumph of the unexpected: the unexpected success of TTT, the unexpected adaptation of this Broadway musical into a stripped-down parlor production, and finally the unexpected force of Molly Brown herself.
The musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown originally hit Broadway in 1960. All these years later, the story still charms: Young vivacious Molly Tobin runs onto stage, gamely fights her older brothers, and swears to seek a better life. Female, poor, unmarried, and illiterate during a time when those qualities likely eclipsed the future, Molly’s brazen courage and strong personality win over mining prospector Johnny Brown. Their sweet duet, “I’ll Never Say No,” fuses loving promises with country charm as the two draw closer to one another, negotiate freedom and commitment, and decide to marry.
Suddenly wealthy, Molly reappears in a bright red dress iconifying her single-minded dedication to social ascension and ingratiating herself with the rest of the Denver elite. As her bald desire to impress the Denver elite grows, she pulls away from the increasingly underappreciated Johnny, finally rejecting America altogether for a fawning, giggling, glamorous European royalty donned in gold. Eventually Molly rediscovers her tether to Johnny, embarking on the Titanic US-bound; when the ship sinks, her spunk and determination save her lifeboat comrades--and return her to Johnny Brown.
Ultimately TTT’s Molly Brown celebrates the spunk, twang, and grit of an opinionated woman whose boisterous personality walks through history and into your evening. Maggie Chestovich’s enormous heart, genuine candor, and irresistible charisma win you over in the retelling of this story from the dawn of the 20th century and coal-mining of the Wild West. Her genuine eagerness and energy--two qualities I so wanted to dismantle and dislike--infuse the rest of the show with humor, brightness, and confidence.
Supporting Chestovich’s Molly Brown, the rest of this talented cast assumes a variety of roles to illustrate her journey through Colorado, class lines, and love. Tyson Forbes leads as Johnny Brown, a lanky smitten counterpart to Molly. George Keller shines as both Denver and European elite; Max Wojtanowicz charms the audience as a disdainful butler and self-congratulatory suitor; and Kimberly Richardson’s simpering Mrs. McGlone offers a perfect foil to our heroine, who is no less entertaining.
I deeply appreciated TTT’s commitment to diverse casting, infusing people of color into the show, reasserting their bodies and voices into the fabric of this messy, complicated, unjust state. I loved the resonance of Eric Sharp as Molly Brown’s well-intentioned father, Shamus; I smiled at the touching warmth of H. Adam Harris’ Christmas; I laughed at the vibrancy of Austene Van’s Princess DeLong. I loved that I never questioned their presence in this cast and in this story. They let their talent speak for themselves, disrupting the traditional narrative of white performers and white roles.
TTT’s minimalist (yet hilarious) set kept the focus upon the actors and their storytelling. Peter Vitale’s music added simple yet strong support to the production, coloring in mood and history through banjo. With lights up the entire show, I saw rapt and smiling faces on my fellow audience members, who were immersed in the world of the musical and love for these characters.
As an Audience Member
This show will appeal to theater communities with its heart: its desire to trek onward, to impress the neighbors, and to explore the unknown. Michelle Hensley direction of Molly Brown makes you laugh and smile, with poignant moments dotted throughout. And there were such great moments: Molly’s silent devastation at throwing a party for guests who never showed, Johnny’s helplessness when he draws the line between the nouveau-riche and those with “old money,” and Molly and Mrs. McGlone’s tense role reversal in a French restaurant months later.
Even in the rich landscape of the Twin Cities, TTT’s makes inspiring theater magic.
Yet, I also wanted more of the complicated dimensions of Molly Brown and Johnny Brown’s relationship. Perhaps their relationship overburdens the ability of music to paint a landscape of people. Or perhaps this musical so clings to Molly Brown as the driving vehicle, that Johnny Brown never quite stands a chance beside his vivacious partner. A shame, since I would love to give these talented performers the chance to explore the push-pull of their relationship more. Is it too much to ask of the script to explore the big questions more: How do you navigate relationships where money and class are such integral factors? Which do you ultimately choose to love more? What brings people back together across the Pacific Ocean and through a shipwreck?
As a Woman of Color
Finally, I here get to critique this genre of American musicals and American storytelling.
At its core, Molly Brown hearkens back to a different era of American mythology. The biggest challenge in this musical for Molly’s character is that she has too much money and yet the other wealthy folks won’t play with her. Class tensions are real and vicious, but I was frustrated by this overall story.
I understand that Molly Brown is typically heralded as a feminist work--a testament to the pluck of an outspoken and vibrant woman at the turn of the century, who found a man with a fortune. Yet here I resist: This story itself paints a whitewashed and romanticized view of an America very few experienced. Let me be blunt: If Molly Brown were a woman of color, this musical would not be believable, assuming someone would even write it in the first place.
By celebrating this musical as feminist triumph, we conflate feminism’ with white feminism. And in doing so, we hold women of color to standards never realistic for them. If Molly Brown were a Black woman, or an Asian woman, or a Native woman, this narrative would make no sense. Picture this: A defiant Black woman weighed down with too much money and a loving husband desperately tries to impress her neighbors in the 1900s? A brash Asian woman is celebrated for her outspokenness and tomboyishness at the turn of the 20th century in the US? A Native woman with a country twang blithely figures in a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” American narrative? Cognitive dissonance, anyone else?
Women of color, in particular, never enjoyed this promise Molly Brown iconifies. Hypersexualized, consistently demonized, constantly denigrated--and blamed for their survivalist behaviors--women of color in the US are not represented by this type of feminism.
Seeing this white feminist story as feminism, I am wrought with questions: What of all those systematically excluded from this vision of American identity? Those targeted by engineered policies or societal xenophobia? What of the scramble of the disenfranchised to ascend to “whiteness” in a desperate reshuffling of the social order in this promised land of opportunity--where is their musical?* Or musical number? Or place in American history?
So as a woman of color living here in the US, the country I truly know, I struggle with the tension between celebrating US history of the West and perpetuating lies about the myth of meritocracy. Working hard and believing in yourself sometimes translates into wealth and security and happiness, yes. But for folks of color, this simple formula is hopelessly riddled with other obstacles and tools of exclusion, centuries in the making.
But what to do with revisionist history through theater and musicals? I don’t have a good answer for this.
Generally, I love theater that leaves an imprint: heart-wrenching exhaustion, depleted uproar, heavy disdain, breathless fascination, something. Yet with this particular show, I was confused: As an audience member, I was won over. As a woman of color, I felt guilty for liking it given its fundamental flaws.
And while I appreciated the vitality of Molly Brown--a real woman legend and first woman to run for Congress, a fundraiser for countless causes, and a mine-worker community organizer--this woman and her tropes proved too distant for any personal resonance to strike. I admired her, but felt no kinship with her character or her story.
Yet this is the type of feminism handed to women like me through theater. So I celebrate the unsinkability of women, of the underdogs, of the unexpected--but more and more I want this unsinkability to jostle such conventional interpretations, to reimagine others who deserve too to see themselves and their stories and their bodies as unsinkable.
*Name five, I challenge you.