NEW YORK -- At one time, the term "sportin' lady" did not refer to a female athlete. A largely upbeat musical based on a downbeat story about just such a lady, "New Girl in Town," is enjoying a sprightly off-Broadway revival at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
The musical comedy is based on Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning tragedy "Anna Christie." First seen on Broadway in a 1957 production that ran for a year, the show garnered a rare Tony Award tie for best actress in a musical for its two leading ladies, Thelma Ritter and the now-legendary Gwen Verdon, but has never had a major revival.
O'Neill's dark story, about a prostitute who tries to change her life by reuniting with her barge captain father and unexpectedly finds love, was considerably brightened up for the musical. Energetic tunes and lyrics by Bob Merrill and the book by George Abbott both focused on the redemptive power of love.
Irish Rep's artistic director Charlotte Moore also finds the bright notes with her smart staging, which includes high-spirited choreography by Barry McNabb and a tuneful four-piece orchestra led by John Bell on piano. The cast includes a talented ensemble of seven actors who kick up their heels and merrily portray singing, dancing saloon girls and sailors. In telling contrast, Stephen Zinnato as a strolling saxophone player provides moody, dissonant interludes.
Fallen farm girl Anna, (a solid yet ethereal performance by Margaret Loesser Robinson), arrives in 1926 New York's dockside area, defeated and cynical, yet faintly hoping to start a new life with her father, whom she hasn't seen in 15 years.
Cliff Bemis is sweetly gruff as Anna's loving father, Chris Christopherson, who thought his daughter grew up safe and happy with relatives on a farm in Minnesota and is now a nurse. But unbeknownst to him, her male cousins and uncles cruelly despoiled her, and she turned to prostitution after escaping their brutality.
Fortunately for Anna, handsome young sailor Matt (Patrick Cummings, charismatic and in excellent voice) soon washes up on her father's barge, and they fall in love. Danielle Ferland is broadly comical as Chris' feisty longtime lady friend, Marthy, who becomes jealous of Anna's popularity and threatens to spill sordid secrets from her past.
Most of the songs are corny but amusing, such the lines "Flings is wonderful things/but they got to be flung/by the young." Two of the more serious standouts are the lovers' duet "Did You Close Your Eyes?," on which Cummings and Robinson harmonize richly, and "Sunshine Girl," easily the most memorable song in this well-done, satisfying show.