On the face of it, Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 melodrama Anna Christie is as odd a choice to provide the source material for a musical as you could possibly find. Its themes of teenage sexual abuse and the flinty redemption that is offered by romantic love are so dark and so potentially unruly, that they threaten to capsize any attempt at levity.
The truth is that Anna Christie feels like an early though characteristically emotionally challenging work by O’Neill. It’s set in a seaside bar that’s the last port of call before the wide ocean.
The stage is filled with hard-bitten old sea dogs and the working girls that make their living from them. It’s about as unromantic a setting as you could possibly find.
In fact it’s such an unpromising storyline for a Broadway musical that you find yourself wondering at the sheer ambition of the composer Bob Merrill and the writer George Abbott who decided to set it to music. What, you’ll ask yourself, were they thinking?
The fearless theater makers of the Irish Repertory Theatre clearly love a challenge, so New Girl in Town, the 1957 musical version of O’Neill’s early play that’s now playing in a spirited revival at the Rep, steps gamely on to the stage as though it had just been waiting for the opportune moment
But even by the 1950s, the Broadway version of New Girl in Town must have looked like a bit of a chestnut, although that turns out to be part of the show’s appeal. New Girl in Town has a sunnier disposition and a far happier ending than the fraught and anxious play it is based on.
Along the way, Irish Repertory Theatre productions always afford you an opportunity to marvel at the scope of their theatrical mastery. The direction, choreography, lighting, costume design and the and the brassy charisma of the actors that play there consistently surpass any other theater in the city.
Among other things, the Rep is a secret home away from home for the Broadway community, and in tribute they often give some of their most memorable performances under its roof.
So it proves with New Girl in Town. Playing Marthy, the sometime girlfriend of the old sailor Chris Christopherson, Danielle Ferland turns in a no holds barred performance as the jealous suitor cast aside for the latest skirt to hit town.
Ferland is like a walking Broadway master class, and she knows it. Her high notes fill the theater and raise the roof simultaneously, and she is clearly having fun playing a sympathetic but thoroughly selfish sailor’s moll who has done someone wrong.
As Anna, Margaret Loesser Robinson is ideally cast. I doubt even the great O’Neill could have envisaged a better fit for his damaged and still reeling from it heroine.
Robinson finds the perfect balance between her ruinous past and her fragile hope for a future she didn’t dare anticipate. She’s the most arresting performer on the stage.
Managing to convey her damaging past and her near desperation in the present just by the way she holds her whiskey glass, Robinson carries the themes from O’Neill’s original play script almost single handedly.
As Matt, the laughing broth of an Irish boy who falls hard for Anna the first time he meets her, Patrick Cummings is a fully fledged Broadway star who is ready to take this role to 42nd Street. He manages to combine street toughness with an unusual tenderness of heart in a performance that has the power to take your breath away. Cummings provides the emotional center of the show in a star making turn.
As Chris Christopherson, the father who gave Anna away to relatives in Minnesota when her mother died, Cliff Bemis looks believably conscience stricken and eager to find a little redemption. He also provides the show with many of its most memorable departures from O’Neill’s source text.
Singing “Ven I Valse” with his daughter, we have stepped far from the gloom and fog of O’Neill’s play into the sunnier climes of Broadway. The thing is that it works.
New Girl in Town gives the Irish Rep another opportunity to do what we already know they do best. The production fires on all cylinders like the venerable old theatrical magic maker it is again, sending you singing into the New York streets.
New Girl in Town plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, until September 9. Visit www.irishrep.org or call 212- 727-2737 for tickets and showtimes.