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By RAVEN SNOOK
A minor Broadway hit in the late '50s, New Girl in Town seems like the kind of musical that would only resurface as part of City Center's Encores! (Indeed, the York Theatre Company did a staged reading of the show a decade ago for its similar Musicals in Mufti series.) But when Charlotte Moore, the artistic director of the Irish Repertory Theatre, learned about this curio, she suspected it was perfect for her company. Why? Because it's based on Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Anna Christie.
"There aren't a whole lot of musicals based on O'Neill," Moore says laughing. "And yet this is actually our second one, since we did Take Me Along [based on Ah, Wilderness! in 2008]."
Before listening to the songs or leafing through the script, Moore reread the source material: a gritty four-act drama about a former prostitute who reconnects with her coal barge captain father, falls in love with a sailor, and is metaphorically cleansed by her new seaside life. "I wondered, how the heck did they adapt this into a musical?" Moore recalls. So before moving ahead, she reached out to one of the show's original Broadway producers, the legendary Hal Prince, to get his take on the material.
There were some heavy hitters involved in the original production: George Abbott penned the book and directed, and Bob "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" Merrill composed the score before going on to work on Funny Girl, Sugar, and Take Me Along. Leading ladies Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter (as Anna's father's blunt and boozy common-law wife, Marthy) shared the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical---the first tie in Tony history. But most enlightening of all, Prince told Moore that New Girl in Town was not initially conceived as a dance show. However, the focus changed when choreographer Bob Fosse and his muse/future wife Gwen Vernon came on board, and at times, the creative team found each other at odds. (The biggest battle: Fosse's sexually charged "Red Light Ballet," which depicted Anna's life in the brothel and caused a mini-scandal out of town. The producers cut it before the show reached New York, and they even destroyed the scenery so the number couldn't be reinstated. However, the cunning choreographer snuck most of it back in a few months into the musical's year-long Broadway run.)
Don't expect to see that racy sequence in Irish Rep's revival. To Moore, restaging New Girl in Town without recreating Fosse's choreography was key, not just because she says his style is "impossible to replicate," but because she wanted to get back to the creators' original vision: a moving, no-glitz story of love and redemption against a seedy backdrop.
As director, Moore has to strike a tricky tone, one that vacillates between rousing song and dance numbers and heavier dramatic scenes. "There no profanity, but it's dark and in some places awkward," she says, adding that despite Merrill's romantic tunes, "it's not a sweet little piece."
Like the show, Anna (Margaret Loesser Robinson) is a mass of contradictions: angelic and earthbound, sullied and innocent. Those qualities especially shine in "On the Farm," during which she recounts her upbringing with abusive relatives in the country. "Anna tries her best to reassure her dad---whom she's just met for the first time in 15 years---that he did the right thing by sending her away," explains Moore. "But she can't with the memories she's forced to face." Anna desperately wants to believe in the idyllic fantasy she sings about, but they both know it's a lie. Yet later, she's being honest when she tells smitten seaman Matt Burke (Patrick Cummings) that he's her first love. She may not be chaste, but she's a virgin when it comes to romance.
Moore did make some adjustments to the book in order to clarify the heroine's journey. Notably, she enhanced Anna and Matt's climactic declaration of love by lifting lines from O'Neill's play. "The way they come together [in the play] is so beautiful," Moore says. "It seemed sparse in the original musical. I wanted it to feel really authentic." She also moved Marthy's big second act number, "Chess and Checkers," to the very end, to give all of the characters closure, something that didn't exist in the original.
Despite Moore's affinity for the show, she doesn't pretend that New Girl in Town is some long-lost gem that will suddenly be done by theatre companies across the country. "When people ask, 'Why hasn't this ever been revived?' I say the same thing: 'It's too hard. It's tough. It's not pretty. She's a prostitute who's been molested, and he's a dumb sailor. It's not The Sound of Music.'
Raven Snook regularly writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Carol Rosegg