By Olivia Popp
I doubt you’ve heard of “New Girl in Town,” but 42nd Street Moon’s newest production of the 1957 musical is sure to make you remember it. With only 17 songs and no flashy musical numbers, “New Girl in Town” doesn’t seem like the type of show to attract or impress modern audiences. Nevertheless, at the time of its premiere, “New Girl in Town” was actually nominated for five Tonys in four categories – including Best Musical – and shared the Tony for Best Actress between its two leading female actors. Based on the Eugene O’Neill play “Anna Christie,” “New Girl in Town” tells the story of Anna (Allison F. Rich), a prostitute who comes to visit her estranged father, Chris Christopherson (Chris Vettel) in New York while simultaneously wishing for a new life. A complicated web of relationships forms when Chris’ common-law wife Marthy (Judith Miller) becomes jealous of Chris and Anna’s developing relationship, and when Chris rescues the sailor Mat Burke (Joshua Marx) but forbids Anna and Mat from having a relationship.
Walking into the Eureka Theater on Saturday night, the striking set and production design immediately stood out. The set design by Mark Mendelson consisted of wooden structures and features lining the stage, reminiscent of a boat dock, bar and house at the same time. Because of the stationary nature of the set, the design emphasizes the era and setting of the musical without ever having to move. Clad in impressive, period-appropriate garb, the 10-person cast sang and charmed their way through two short acts that consisted of a few small dance numbers and heartfelt songs.
I didn’t immediately notice that the traditional musical pit orchestra instead only featured a single piano that was tucked behind the set, most likely owing to the solid singing and ensemble work. I failed to notice that only one instrument was playing, but it didn’t seem to detract from the quality of the production at all. In fact, it helped balance the fact that none of the actors were wearing microphones, creating a sort of stripped-down feel. Employing bold character posture, distinct accents and physical comedy, Marx and Miller’s strong acting also added a certain comedic value necessary to carry the somewhat bland script. Throughout the show, I began to realize that the script, songs and plot were not all that glamorous, fueling a sense of tense discomfort over such a well-staged production. Few recordings of the musical itself, let alone the original, exist in the depths of the Internet – so why do this unknown, rarely-produced musical with a talented cast and beautiful production design? I still don’t know the answer, but choose to think that 42nd Street Moon adds a certain level of spark to a musical that might never have the commercial success the creators so desired.
Though “New Girl in Town” doesn’t strike me as the type of musical ever to really impress an audience, 42nd Street Moon delivers a strong, entertaining show guaranteed to make you believe in love again. While none of the songs are all that memorable – not at the fault of the production itself but simply the nature of the musical – the last song, “Look at ‘Er (reprise),” sung by Mat as he gazes lovingly at Anna, reminded me just why musicals like this exist. As Mat belts out his adoration for Anna, standing tall atop his post on a wooden ledge, I couldn’t help but feel a wrenching pang of bittersweet idealism about Mat and Anna’s love – separated by a devastating fight one year ago, they still knew that they belonged together – and all I could do was smile.
“New Girl in Town” opened at the Eureka Theater on March 29 and closes on April 16.
Contact Olivia Popp at opopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.