Saturday, April 8, 2017

"New Girl in Town"

New Girl in Town
Bob Merrill (Music & Lyrics); George Abbott (Book)

Allison F. Rich & Chris Vettel
A down-and-out, former prostitute returns to seek out a father she hardly knows; goes to a local bar on New York’s seedy dockside to await him; and orders not one, but two (and thinking about three) whiskeys.  The ol’ Swedish dad -- a salty sailor who likes flirting with local women of the night and is now confined to working on a river barge – comes looking for the little girl he once abandoned whom he now thinks is a nurse in Minnesota.  The two meet but not until the sailor’s common-law wife has already discovered (between the second and third whiskeys) that she and the new girl in town share a common past – a secret the older ex-strumpet may keep as long as her will to stay mostly sober remains firm.

Such is the set-up for the 1957 Bob Merrill (music and lyrics) and George Abbott (book) musical, New Girl in Town -- an overall much cheerier, more upbeat version of Eugene O’Neill’s dour and serious 1921 play, Anna Christie.  With a rousing, dance-filled, opening number by the dock’s teasing streetwalkers and ogling sailors entitled “Roll Your Socks Up,” it is immediately clear that this 42nd Street Moon offering will be a toe-tapping, fun outing even if there may be some revelations to come that cause some temporary hiccups and heartburns along the way.  After all, this is a musical of the fifties when happy endings are a sure-fire guarantee.

Chris Vettel
With sad eyes gazing in wide search of some unknown horizon, the bearded, wizened Chris sings in a deeply rich, emotionally wavering voice about his “Anna Lilia” as he is “looking for memories not there” of a daughter not seen in fifteen years.  Singing and speaking in an accent authentic of a Swedish immigrant of the early 1990s to New York’s Lower East Side, Chris Vettel as the old sailor opens his heart in genuine welcome and love to the daughter he has hardly considered for so long.  Immediately he now becomes protective, ready to guard her against any advances by young sailors the likes of whom he once was.

Joshua Marx
One such young, strikingly handsome seafarer is Matt, whose first glance of the older Chris’s Anna leads him immediately to sing, “I look at her and melt like I am butter in the sun” (in “Look at ‘Er”).  As Matt, Joshua Marx employs a slightly cocky but yet immediately likeable personality to compliment a singing voice that is also contagious in attraction, with an ability to trumpet with clear conviction his feelings for this mysterious girl he suddenly meets.  In his enthusiasm, however, Mr. Marx has some tendency to over-sing a bit and also speaks in some un-determined, often inconsistent accent (Is he Irish with his coal-black hair?) that at times makes it difficult to understand some of his words.

Allison F. Rich
The ‘girl’ for whom he quickly falls and the one her now-devoted dad is bound to see he does not marry is Anna, played with absolute confidence and striking style by Allison F. Rich.  Amid fog and the sound of gulls on her first trip on a barge with father Chris, Anna sings one of several songs (“It’s Good to Be Alive”) in which Ms. Rich’s full, clear resonance rings forth with truth and talent.  Earlier, with some tongue-in-cheek and eyes that sparkle with fierce brightness, Anna sings about a supposed life “On the Farm” from the Minnesota where she was actually a woman of the night, employing broad, bold notes to sell the number.  Later, once love seems to have left her, she sings with reflective soul-searching a moving “If That Was Love” that solidifies Ms. Rich as the true star of the evening.

Judith Miller
Making her own bid for notice on this stage is Judith Miller as Chris’s common-law wife, Marthy, a role she seems to be losing as he makes room in his life and small abode for the now-returned, now-adored daughter, Anna.  Ms. Miller’s Marthy has a smile that shines big and bright when she is happy around her dockside friends and a darkened snarl that furrows deeper the more she drinks when her jealousy of the intruding Anna gets the better of her.  With a voice pleasantly guttural just enough to authenticate “Flings” (a song she sings about her past with fellow women of the night), Marthy also offers a fun, homespun, flair to her duet with Chris in “Yer My Friend, Ain’tcha?”

Members of the Ensemble
Much of the evening’s energy comes from an enthusiastic ensemble of six.  All members bring strong voices for both invigorating harmonies and spotlighted solos, popping personalities to play a variety of parts, and terrific abilities to carry out the snappy, well-coordinated choreography of Kelly Cooper.  Particular group standouts include the more formal dancing in “At the Check Apron Ball” and the full-out stomping and stepping in “There Ain’t No Flies on Me,” both sung with pleasing aplomb and vigorous harmonies.  Michael Birr, Mark J. Enea, Ashley Garlick, John-Elliott Kirk, Laruen Meyer, and Elise Youssef each deserve recognition and kudos.

The Set Designed by Mark Mendelson
In departure from a 42nd Street Moon history of minimal scenery, the set of New Girl in Town is a much-welcome addition to the otherwise, consistent excellence in music and choreography that the company’s loyal audiences have become accustomed.  Mark Mendelson has created a sea-weathered scene of wooden docks full of ropes, nets, and crates; a local bar for sailors and their gals; and a general feeling of the early days of the past century – the last aspect greatly enhanced by the colorful skirts and seaworthy duds designed by Bethany Deal.  Ryan Weible provides the ripple effects of water as part of his impressive lighting design, with Daren A.C. Carollo as director and Dave Dobrusky as music director (and accompanist extraordinaire) ensuring a quick-paced, well-sounding, well-executed one-act musical evening.

The New Girl in Town in some ways is a bit of a museum piece.  There is not a lot of depth of meaning or substance for today’s world.  The songs for the most part are pleasant enough but not exactly ones remembered once back on the street outside.  The happy resolution occurs too quickly and too easily after the heroine has been quite severely abused and rejected by her would-be lover.  But our toes still tend to tap, our chuckles flow easily, and our smiles do broadly appear with that final kiss – and in the end, a pretty good time is obviously had by all as 42nd Street Moon once again revives a musical mostly ignored by all other stages.

Rating: 3½ E

The New Girl in Town continues through April 16, 2017 in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-255-8207.

Photo Credits: Ben Krantz Studio

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