The set-up: Joy is to be found inside Heinen Theatre, as well as surprise. Bayou City Concert Musicals has astonished us yet again, as it does annually each September, with an absolutely smashing production of a true musical rarity, New Girl in Town (1957). The surprise is not the company's ease or polish or amazing cast - that goes without saying - but that this forgotten show is so good.
The execution: The musical, written by Broadway wizard George Abbott, with sparkling music and (somewhat less sparkling) lyrics by then-newcomer Bob Merrill, is based on Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Christie, a brooding tale of former prostitute Anna finding love, of sorts, through the cleansing effects of the mysterious fog-bound sea. Her father Chris, who sent her off to Minnesota when she was a child to get her away from the dangers posed by his drunken seafaring life and, more importantly, drunken sailors, thinks she has returned these many years pure and ladylike.
When a rough sailor is rescued at sea and brought to port, he falls for her. Damaged and terribly wary, she keeps her distance, but the sea and the sailor's faith renews her. But she won't marry him. She's not good enough. In one of O'Neill's patented recognition scenes where the past is revealed and dreams shattered, Anna tells all. At the end all three are tentatively reconciled, and Anna will wait for her sailor as he ships out to sea once more. "I'll make a regular place for you two to come back to - wait and see. And now you drink up and be friends."
O'Neill's seaborne triangle has been sanitized and condensed for the musical stage. Anna's classic opening line is lovingly left intact: "Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don't be stingy, baby." The role of Marthy, Dad's boozy old lover, is beefed up to co-star. In a drunken fit of jealousy and losing face with the old man, she's the one who spills Anna's secret. Naturally, the comedy is goosed. And since this starred Broadway's reigning song-and-dance diva, Gwen Verdon, there are dances galore.
O'Neill's fateful "old devil sea" gets lost in this revamp, but the new authors have given us an adult musical with substance behind the showgirls. There's even that musical chestnut, a dream ballet in Act II, brought up to speed, as Anna remembers her past in the brothel.
Originally choreographed by Bob Fosse, the dances have vanished into the ether, but they must have been something for all the hubbub they caused at rehearsals, and how they're still remembered for being so steamy. The number has Merrill's best music: a bit of Salome taunts at the beginning, then it goes percussive and throbbing, as the johns are entertained by the ladies of the evening. BCCM's dancemakers Melissa Pritchett and Mitchell Greco, who co-directed with Paul Hope, have a grand time shocking us: some Cabaret sleaze, some Chicago gyrations, and a wicked apache dance to signal Anna's abuse and degradation.
And yet, the combo of O'Neill and show tunes - especially those undiscovered beauties by Merrill - go extremely well together. Who'd have guessed? Well, I suppose producer Hal Prince, Abbott, Fosse,and Verdon, all of them on a Broadway high after their previous smash, Damn Yankees. New Girl ran a year, then closed when Verdon went to Hollywood to film Yankees. Even though a cast album was released, New Girl disappeared into the fog. A belated off-Broadway revival in 2012 from the Irish Rep failed to renew interest. Maybe, BCCM's version will turn the tide.
A better rendition would be hard to find. The casting is impeccable. We've known for a long time that Krissy Richmond (Anna), former principal dancer at Houston Ballet and veteran of Broadway, is a triple threat as singer, dancer, and actor, but she's a revelation here. Strong and feisty as shell-shocked woman of the world, she's also surprisingly vulnerable and guarded when she meets storm-tossed stranger Matt (John Gremillion). Their chemistry is electric. While the dances don't show her off as well as they should, Merrill's songs do. She slaps us hard with her first number, the acidic "On the Farm," where her shady past had its roots, "Country eggs by the dozens, getting grabbed by all my cousins," and then goes all warm and bluesy for the ballad, "It's Good to be Alive."
Gremillion, veteran trooper from Masquerade Theatre and numerous guest appearances at Music Box Theater, among other Houston venues - his God of Carnage at Stark Naked was unforgettable - is the perfect foil for Richmond. The fit is sublime. His baritone is rich and expressive, ideal for Matt's rhapsodic ode, "Look at 'Er." Their scenes together set off sparks.
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Jon L. Egging (as Anna's father Chris), with enough whitener in his hair to flock a Christmas tree, makes us believe he's a crotchety old man of the sea, wanting the best for his daughter, even if it's taken him two decades to atone. Playwright Abbott has taken most of the wind out of O'Neill's sails, but Egging blusters and fumes like caught in a squall. He knows his blarney. He's paired with Marijane Vandivier (as souse Marthy), the old pro, who knows just how to steal a scene while winking at us. When the waiter with the drinks passes her by, she quips, "This isn't a way station, it's a permanent stop." She's delectable.
The rest of the cast is a Who's Who of prime musical talent. Standouts include Dylan Godwin (this year's Houston Theater Award winner as Best Breakthrough), Mark Ivy, and Rodrick Randall, as a snappy barbershop trio who serenade us with Merrill's pseudo-19th century ditty, "Sunshine Girl;" Tamara Siler and Susan Shofner as ladies of the evening of a certain age who remember their glory days with the catchy comedy song "Flings." Mitchell Greco, Jimmy Phillips, Shondra Marie, and Todd Klawitter add luster to the large cast.
Under the musical direction of maestro Dominique Røyem, the BCCM orchestra practically purrs through those lush orchestrations from Broadway masters Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang. (BCCM has the distinction of using the original orchestrations for its shows. Another star in its crown.) Merrill gives New Girl a pastiche of old sound, since the musical is re-set to 1900. We get contemporary '50s pop love ballads, of course, but also nifty period cakewalks and rags augmented with banjo. For a novice Broadway composer (although he was known for his phenomenally successful "How Much is That Doggie in the Window" and would later write the score to Carnival and the lyrics to Funny Girl), tyro Merrill is quite at home on stage. The verdict: Directors Hope and Greco deftly keep the drama and comedy on equal footing; the show glides as if on wheels. For all musical theater groupies, this forgotten gem from the archives is the real thing. Time and budget limit BCCM's performances to a weekend schedule, so if you've never heard of New Girl in Town, sail over to Heinen Theatre - and be astonished.
New Girl in Town continues through September 7at Heinen Theatre, 3517 Austin. Purchase tickets online at www.bayoucityconcertmusicals.org or call 713-4656484. $25-$50.