Father & daughter musical reunion

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday April 5, 2017
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It's taken 60 years to reach San Francisco, but 42nd Street Moon is giving a right-proper welcome to New Girl in Town. A somewhat strained amalgam of Broadway talents prodded the show into New York in 1957, where it had a profitable run of more than a year, and then has scant been heard from again. But in the smaller scale at which 42nd Street Moon operates, and allowed to be remolded without the star-vehicle machinations of the original, this production of New Girl proves to be merry entertainment indeed.

Now, "merry" is not an adjective often applied to Eugene O'Neill, and New Girl does derive from his 1922 play Anna Christie. O'Neill-ophiles might best stay away, but otherwise that connection can remain a curiosity. True, the skeleton of the story remains, but its gloomy tone has been jettisoned for more traditional musical-comedy conventions. Plus, the production at the Eureka Theatre has been streamlined to an intermissionless 95 minutes, but with Bob Merrill's engaging songs all accounted for.

But the character Anna Christie does stick to O'Neill as she makes her first entrance at a grimy waterfront tavern. "Gimme a whiskey �" ginger ale on the side. And don't be stingy, baby," she growls at the bartender (which also happen to be the first words Greta Garbo ever uttered in a talkie). We're surprised by the character's coarseness because her father, who hasn't seen his daughter in 15 years, has been talking her up to dockside denizens as an innocent Midwestern farm-girl-turned-nurse, and remains blind to all signs of her recent career in "the sportin' life" as she tries to remake herself in New York.

The team of writer-director George Abbott, choreographer Bob Fosse, and producer Hal Prince was riding high off the successes of The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, and they liked the songs that Broadway neophyte Bob Merrill had already written to start the process of turning Anna Christie into a musical. Abbott and Fosse fought over how to do that, with Abbott favoring a more serious approach, and Fosse of course wanting to showcase his dance steps �" especially after his future wife Gwen Verdon, primarily known as a dancer, was cast as Anna over Abbott's initial objections. During a rocky out-of-town tryout, the show was pushed and pulled, and Fosse's briefly notorious bordello dream ballet was jettisoned, to meet as many expectations as possible.

But director Daren A.C. Carollo can pretty much work with a clean slate, and we arrive, for example, with no expectations that Allison F. Rich will have a dance showcase or that the tone of the piece reflect a backstage battleground. The production powers confidently ahead, with lively dance steps from Kelly Cooper in the minimalist production numbers that usually have little to do with the basic story. There is also a cast that can both act and sing at a surprisingly high level, from the versatile ensemble who move through multiple roles to Rich's authentically layered role as the cynical, hard-edged Anna, who struggles to find a new path.

As Anna's father, a lovable Swedish souse who operates a coal barge, Chris Vettel captures the warmth and sadness behind this trusting soul. Because Thelma Ritter was cast as his common-law wife, and shared over-the-title billing and the Tony Award with Verdon, the role of Marthy was built up from what O'Neill had offered, and Judith Miller puts her own steely spin on the Tugboat Annie-style role. Anna has to have a love interest, and Joshua Marx solidly fits the bill as the roughhousing sailor who softens before finding out about Anna's true past.

Working away at the piano in the shadows of Mark Mendelson's atmospheric multiple-purpose set, musical director Dave Dobrusky keeps the show melodically on track. That's particularly important in this production, for songs are regularly arriving without much interference from dialogue �" O'Neill's or anyone else's.


New Girl in Town will run at the Eureka Theatre through April 16. Tickets are $28-$75. Call (415) 255-8207 or go to 42ndstreetmoon.org.