SAN DIEGO — Call her the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds.
At least half the appeal of the San Diego Playgoers' presentation of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" at the San Diego Civic Theatre lies in seeing that Reynolds, like the real-life heroine of the story, Margaret (Molly) Tobin Brown, "ain't down yet."
Brown, a frankly spoken farm girl who became rich through her husband's prospecting luck, achieved fame in 1912 when she refused to go down with the Titanic, rowing on a lifeboat for 7 1/2 hours with 39 other passengers before being rescued.
In someone else's hands, this big, sentimental revival of a 29-year-old show with maybe two memorable songs by Meredith Willson could be a veritable sinking ship.
But Reynolds, who announces her birthday in the program for all to see--she's 54--knows her audience, and when attention in Molly Brown seems to flag, she draws attention back to her own spunky struggles as an aging actress who will not give up.
After her co-star, Harve Presnell (who does not list his age, 52), swoops her up and puts her down, she smirks up at him and ad libs, "It gets harder every day, don't it?"
After another vigorous dance number, she makes a show of adjusting her wig so that it's back on straight. And, when the show is over, and the standing ovation has at last quieted, she spreads out her arms like a delighted hostess and says, "You know how to make an old lady happy. I feel so grand. And I hope you don't have to all go to the bathroom at the same time. Bring your friends, and y'all come back again!"
Critics have complained, rightfully, in the past, that it is hard to convincingly dramatize the peril of Molly Brown's last rowboat ride. But what better analogy could there be for Molly's indefatigability than Reynolds' entire performance?
From the singing to the back flips to the dancing--an opening night performance that followed a few scant hours on a matinee--Reynolds is rowing against the tide just as surely as Brown did. And. like Brown, she is making it--with a smile.
The show, which Reynolds is producing with her husband, real estate developer Richard Hamlett, opened at Theatre Under the Stars in Houston in April and went to Long Beach Civic Light Opera in May. She is planning a national tour through August 1990 that includes a stop at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles in mid-September.
Although Reynolds co-starred in the MGM movie with Presnell 25 years ago, this marks her debut in the Broadway version in which Presnell played opposite Tammy Grimes for 533 performances. The revival picks up an extra song from the movie, "He's My Friend" and an opening scene on the Titanic that sets up the image of an older Molly looking back on her life, but is otherwise pretty much the same as the original. Whether there is another Broadway run in the show's future is still open to speculation.
Presnell, who will be playing Daddy Warbucks in the upcoming "Annie II," has also aged well. His voice, which still packs operatic power, sets fire to "I'll Never Say No To You," easily the most winning song in the score. And the way he looks at Reynolds as if half-concerned and titillated at the question of just what this irrepressible person might try to pull next, seems right in keeping with the way the doting Johnny Brown may have looked at his unpredictable wife.
John Bowab's relaxed direction accentuates the positive in a likable, professional cast. But the show, thin as it is, could have been deepened considerably by a little light thrown on the darker edges of the social climbers the newly rich Browns try to woo and win, at first in vain. Francesco Sorianello could have used a predatory glimmer as the prince who wants Molly for her money; a rougher side to Gene Ross as Molly's hard-drinking father, Shamus, might have helped explain her desperation to escape the poverty and crudeness with which she grew up.
And one wonders why the opening scene on the Titanic does not end in the impending doom that would be the catalyst for Molly Brown's fleeting fears as her life flashes before her eyes.
Ed Kerrigan's choreography keeps the show moving with fancy footwork, artfully orchestrated to make the most out of Reynolds' flashy flips. Paco Macliss' sumptuous, glittering costumes flesh out the big, airy set design by Randy Wright that travels from the Rockies to the Brown mansion to the ocean and back again.
The sound is not all it should be, to the detriment of Reynolds who is far better at the soft ballads like "My Own Brass Bed" than she is at the belting numbers.
But, to pick at the problems in a show like this is to miss the point. This isn't a musical comedy as much as it is "a happening," a celebration of the spirit of people who don't give up. The ride may be bumpy at times, but it will get there. It's unsinkable, thanks to Reynolds and her crew, so you might as well sit back and enjoy it.
Performances at 8 p.m. through Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday with a Saturday matinee at 2 and a Sunday matinee at 3. Tickets are $18-37.50. At 202 C St., San Diego, (619) 236-6510 or 278-TIXS.
"THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN"
Music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. Book by Richard Morris. Director is John Bowab. Choreography by Ed Kerrigan. Musical direction by Joey Singer. Sets by Randy Wright. Costumes by Paco Macliss. Sound by William A. Hennigh. Stage manager is Joe Lorden. With Debbie Reynolds, Gene Ross, Robert Loftin, Joseph P.McDonnell, Harve Presnell, Lyle Kanouse, Greg Rolph, Joseph Savant, Eileen Casey, Tracy Powell, Anne Marie Roller, Jeff Austin, Frank Stancati, Richard Wojnowski, Simon McQueen, Zachary Charles, Susan Hoffman, Francesco Sorianello, Anne Russell, Raine Presnell, Pete Carter, Louie Trisoliere and Richard Byron.