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New Girl in Town

At the Shubert

By Thomas K. Schwabacher

New Girl in Town has all the mass-produced efficiency of a motor car from Detroit. One of the most experienced craftsmen of the musical comedy industry, George Abbott, has provided the book and the direction. The music and lyrics by Bob Merrill, as well as Bob Fosse's choreography, are workmanlike, and Rouben Ter-Arutunian's sets provide the required amount of variety and glitter. And for the touch of glamor that looks good in the ads, there is the star, Gwen Verdon. As a result of the combined reputations of all these people, the vehicle ought to glide smoothly through a year's run on Broadway. It's only too bad that somewhere along the assembly line, somebody forgot to install an engine.

The missing motor in this case is a decent book. To be sure, the show is based on one of the most enduring, if not the better, of Eugene O'Neill's plays, Anna Christie. But even in the original play, the plot was not one of the strongest elements. It concerns a more or less reformed prostitute who, after some years spent in pursuit of her trade, returns for rest and rehabilitation to her father, the skipper of a coal-barge.

During a voyage on the barge they pick up a shipwrecked sailor, who promptly falls in love with the girl and, after some soul-searching and recriminations, marries her. It's as simple as that, but by means of some effective symbolism and characterization as well as his gloomy view of the fate which brings the pair together, O'Neill injected a good deal of power into the staggering plot. In a musical, however, you just don't explore the possibility of portraying the wickedness offered in the girl's career; you don't use fate except as a rhyme in a song; and above all you aren't gloomy. So all Abbott retains of the original is the elementary boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl structure; and that just isn't enough to drive the musical.

The second major flaw in the show is the misuse of the star's talents. Miss Verdon shares with such other musical comedy queens as Mary Martin and Ethel Merman that undefinable quality called stage presence, but unlike them she is not, primarily, a singer. Though she possesses a pleasant enough voice, her main ability is as a dancer, and more specifically, a comic dancer. The show offers her only one opportunity to do this sort of work, and the resulting ballet, There Ain't No Flies on Me, is the musical's best sequence.

It would be unjust to suggest that everything is wrong with the show. To its great credit, it presents Thelma Ritter, who plays what Time magazine would call "the great and good friend" of the barge skipper. A comedienne of absolutely the first caliber, she has brought to its ultimate perfection the characterization of the lovable shrew. Though some of her material might be funnier, her acting could scarcely be better.

Cameron Prud'homme, in the part of the captain, also has his book-inspired troubles. He is inflicted with a Swedish accent which, it must be admitted, was O'Neill's idea. Prud'homme struggles valiantly, and on the whole with success. As for the sailor, George Wallace, he looks as muscular and manly as a musical comedy leading man has to; and he also has a good singing voice, a fact which he demonstrates in Merrill's best song, Look At 'Er.

Merrill's songs, altogether, are pleasant but not likely to be long remembered. Like that of the show as a whole, the effect of the songs is satisfactory, but just not first rate.

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