theater review

Lifeboats and Lifelines: Two Musicals Make the Case for Not Giving Up

Janelle McDermoth in Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die, at Second Stage. Photo: Joan Marcus

What if you could prescribe shows individually, like drugs? Boy, it would make the “recommending” part of criticism—not the only part, but a big one—so easy. I’d feel much more prepared for my job if I could meet with each prospective theatergoer and ask, What feels wrong right now? What have you already taken to treat it? And, of course, What are your allergies?

Two musicals on right now will be the cures for what ails … some of you. They’re both full of movement and contagious lightness; they’re both explicitly about offering help in tough times. Uptown, it’s Young Jean Lee’s cabaret We’re Gonna Die, revived in a millennial lilac-and-gold production at Second Stage; downtown, it’s an all-new version of Meredith Willson and Richard Morris’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown, with a fresh book and some new lyrics by Dick Scanlan. Clearly the makers are responding to burn-out culture, free-floating malaise, that sense of crawling terror that has all of us by the throat. So each one looks out into the audience and tells us to adopt a new attitude. In Lee, it’s enlightened acceptance; in Scanlan-and-Willson, it’s action.

When Young Jean Lee first made We’re Gonna Die, it was the cherry on the top of a weird sundae. She had been smashing our brains in with play after play—Songs of the Dragons Flying To Heaven, LEAR, The Shipment—all of which had moved goalposts we hadn’t really been aware of. She was audacious, anti-sentimental, experimental, willing to make shows on third-rail topics and to rip off Sesame Street. What couldn’t she do? In 2011, she power-flexed by taking up songwriting and singing-in-public at the same time, formed a band called Future Wife, and performed a heartfelt song-cycle at Joe’s Pub about the few things she’d ever learned that offered comfort. These are all small and fleeting salves: a lullaby, the sense that a boyfriend will hold your hand forever (spoiler: no), the perspective that getting old sucks in order to make death seem not so bad, and, in “I’m Gonna Die,” the acceptance of the end of life itself. Her between-songs patter is about tart grandmothers, a first white hair, her father’s battle with cancer. In that initial presentation, she gave the sense that these were truly things she had experienced (though some stories were borrowed) and learned from. It felt immense and casual and like a gift: She had learned a completely new skill just to pass this advice along.

The revival, directed and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly, keeps the songs but loses the bravery. We’re now at a capital-s Show: There’s a purple neon sign that says WE’RE GONNA DIE at the entrance, and David Zinn’s set is a lavender-painted waiting room with a vending machine and a spiral staircase that goes both above and below; we’re in limbo, with snacks. Lighting designer Tuce Yasak throws approximately one million looks at us, often in the same song. There’s a speed-sunrise, a prowling yellow glow, geometric follow-spots that introduce Ironic ’80’s Energy ™—all of which are stunning lighting cues, though hardly purgatorial. And instead of Lee trying her darnedest, the singer is Janelle McDermoth, a huge-voiced phenom who flirts and smiles and power-punches through all her songs. She shrugs in and out of a hand-painted leather jacket (Naoko Nagata did the costumes), leaps onto the furniture, and, in general, seems radioactive with youth. If this person has discovered a white hair, I will eat my hat.

So will you find it comforting? I wonder if that will depend on your own age, your own experience. I found myself missing the rawness of the original, which made me rather resent the polish of Feather Kelly’s version. He also concludes the piece with a celebratory explosion, a dance, which, while beautifully choreographed, also changes the point. All the band members, released from their instruments by a recorded track, run around the space, playing with balloons and wearing little party hats. Liberate yourself from the fear of death, they seem to be saying, and life is a child’s birthday party, whoopee whoopee! Based on the thrilled reactions of the crowd, there is clearly solace here. But I remember We’re Gonna Die as something that looked forward rather than back. It gave aging a point and death a kind of pearly, welcoming shimmer. It was about growing up. It didn’t make me miss being 5 at all.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown, on the other hand, is very much about adulthood—a specific one, in fact. Beth Malone plays the real-life Titanic survivor Margaret “Call Me Molly” Brown with a sharp Midwestern accent (she could cut hardtack with it), a short haircut, and Dick Scanlan’s pointed lines about “persisting.” The minute she and her beloved J.J. Brown (David Aron Damane) make their gold-mine bajillions, she starts coming up with plans to spend it to help others. “Share the Luck!” she sings, while founding a juvenile detention center, a soup kitchen, a relief fund and—complete with prop stuffed puppy—a pound. She even runs for Congress and crows about votes for women. Despite the research posters in the lobby telling us about the real Molly Brown, we know we’re watching a musical fantasy version of Elizabeth Warren. The night I saw it, during the section when her old mining chum Erich (Alex Gibson) tells us to vote, the room applauded enfranchisedly.

The Transport Group production, directed and choreographed by musical maven Kathleen Marshall, is cheery and vibrant, but it’s still missing a little something. Despite its up-to-the-minute political content, it’s essentially a love story. Beth Malone has the charisma and glee that anyone would follow into battle; she has that multitasker energy that makes you think she might also be playing Saint Joan in her few moments offstage. Gotta use that time somehow! But while Damane rumbles beautifully in his low registers, he and she never quite seem to rumble each other. In the first act, when spirited Molly is bouncing all over Leadville, Colorado, making friends with sweet-voiced Julia (Whitney Bashor), she seems like a kid and J.J. seems immeasurably older. J.J.’s big seduction move is buying her the things she yearns for—a red dress, a teacup…and a bed. She looks 15. Yecch. Must be my allergies acting up.

But Molly hasn’t got time for my squeamishness, so she barrels on into the second act. “We’re not down yet!” is her rallying cry, and each time she repeats it—in the face of all manner of disasters—it rings like a trumpet. Because the music is by Meredith (The Music Man) Willson, it kind of makes you want to march around—even, say, the next day in your apartment, using a paper-towel roll as a baton. I also sang “I’m Gonna Die,” though, several times. And I think that’s why these musicals are such good things to lean on in times of trouble. We know that neurologically, music lodges in the memory in a particularly sticky way. So when you least expect it, there the song is—popping up as a surprise, ready to roll out again, eager to tow you into the light. We’re not down yet!

We’re Gonna Die is at Second Stage Theatre through March 22.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown is at the Abrons Arts Center through April 5.

Lifeboats and Lifelines: Two Musicals About Not Giving Up