Tense and timely with a healthy dose of absurdity, C.A. Johnson’s “All the Natalie Portmans” is a small, but moving, story of Keyonna, a 16-year-old Black girl who identifies as queer and struggles to stay steady as the world appears to collapse around her. Her father has committed suicide. Her mother, Ovetta, is an alcoholic struggling to keep a roof over the heads of Keyonna and her brother, Samuel. Keyonna has a crush on a childhood friend, Chantel. Chantel freaked out after a sexual experience with Keyonna and is now sleeping with Samuel, which is confusing and difficult for Keyonna. Samuel, meanwhile, feels responsible for Keyonna, but in his earnestness he creates a situation that lands him in juvenile detention. It’s a lot.
To try to deal with all of this, Keyonna has an imaginary friend who just happens to be the actress Natalie Portman. Natalie appears at times of high stress for Keyonna as characters from her movies. Keyonna also maintains a “dream board” on the wall behind the sofa where she sleeps. It features pictures of mostly white movie stars. Despite her tenuous circumstances, where homelessness looms and her diet is largely dry cereal, Keyonna is upbeat and determined to write screenplays. She has a natural sense of the power of narrative as both a coping mechanism and a possible path out of her current life. She will not be deterred.
For Keyonna, the fantasy Natalie Portman embodies that promise. Keyonna is smart and a survivor, and in Johnson’s confident and direct writing she and the other characters come off as authentic. This is a play about the ways each of the characters finds acceptance and learns to deal with life as it happens, which certainly is not how it goes in the movies. Defects and all, Johnson’s characters are appealing because they are all always trying to do better. The balance of realism and absurdism is poetic and compelling.
Kate Whoriskey directs with simplicity and honesty that enhances the lyricism — and darkness — of the text. The cast is excellent, giving the characters depth and complexity. Renika Williams plays Chantel with a balance of heart and insecurity that serves as a foil to Keyonna’s more confident mien. Joshua Boone is moving as Samuel, caught up in adult responsibility too young. Elise Kibler gives Natalie Portman a winning jocularity and a commitment to keeping Keyonna away from the brink. Montego Glover is powerful as Ovetta, a mother who is too young and struggling with her own identity. Kara Young as Keyonna is extraordinary — the vibrant force that drives the play. Her character knows how to fight, has wisdom beyond her year, and refuses to be beaten.
The play has a wonderful sense of life’s incongruities and unfairness, especially as juxtaposed against romanticized Hollywood myths. Like the new Netflix series “I Am Not Okay With This,” which also features a marginalized teen trying to cope with a crazy world, it is set in the past, but the struggle to survive, even thrive amidst the uncertainty and absurdity is a compellingly contemporary theme.
Re-imagining old musicals to fit changing cultural sensibilities is a tricky business. In the case of a 60-year-old mediocre vehicle like “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” muddling through Dick Scanlan’s deconstruction and reconstitution of Richard Morris’ original book is more a penance than a pleasure. Program notes indicate that none of the characters existed as they did in the original, and the score is cobbled together from Meredith Willson’s original, as well as other songs from his catalog and new ones by Scanlan and Michael Rafter. The intention was to take a conventional musical comedy love story based on the legend that grew up around the real-life Titanic survivor Molly Brown and turn it into a tale of female empowerment.
It doesn’t work. The mash-up of an MGM-style musical and historical realism is a bad marriage, and the problems are apparent as soon as the curtain rises. For all the protestations of “wokeness,” Scanlan’s reimagined Molly is nothing more than a stock character who relies largely on pluck and spunk to get what she wants. Scanlan provides no underlying character development and confuses Molly’s manic aggression with evolved agency. Worse, in order to achieve her ends, Molly has to emasculate all the men around her, and there is no justification for why she becomes pro-union or champions immigrants, except because it angers her husband and allows her to assert herself in opposition to him.
In straining to be topical, Scanlan has also thrown in a particularly awkward scene near the end where Molly makes some very timely political arguments, and, of course, someone has to say, “She persisted.” It’s completely forced, pandering, and tonally discordant. At the end, it’s all for naught because after separating from her husband to be independent (something not possible at the time without her husband’s acquiescence since she could have had no property of her own), Molly races home on the Titanic to attend to him when he falls sick. Commanding her lifeboat in the North Atlantic, Molly realizes how much she loves and needs her man after all and is repentant for her mad self-absorption. So, after all of this noise, we’re back to the conventional musical comedy trope that the only real happiness for a woman rests in being with a man.
It doesn’t help that Meredith Willson’s music and Scanlan and Michael Rafter’s new contributions are bland songs that never rise to the level of Willson’s hit “The Music Man.” Willson’s songs for “Molly Brown” largely track that musical from the spoken opening (mirroring “Rock Island in “The Music Man”) to the sentimental love songs to the barbershop quartet and raucous production numbers. Yet none of them ever achieves the heart or exuberance of “Good Night, My Someone” or “Seventy-Six Trombones,” both of which have remained popular hits for decades. (New York audiences will get to see “The Music Man” next season with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster.)
Director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall seems understandably confused about exactly what kind of show she’s creating. In an attempt to negotiate the stylistic incongruity, she just makes a mess. Obvious jokes land with a thud, the characters are never believably serious, and the choreography is conventional and uninspired for all its exuberance. The company is largely unremarkable, though one can’t help but feel sorry for Beth Malone in the title role. Malone who was Tony-nominated for her wonderfully nuanced performance in “Fun Home,” attacks Molly as if she were cranked up on amphetamines. Neither Scanlan nor Marshall gives Molly a single, human moment, so Malone blasts through the show as if she had a gun to her head and wolves at her heels. It’s an impressive feat and probably savvy for Malone to show off her considerable talents, but it’s very disconcerting that a show that wants to be taken seriously is so superficial.
There are certainly pleasures to be had in a big, splashy, senseless musical. Just look at “Moulin Rouge.” It’s unapologetically spectacular and ridiculous. That’s a whole school of musical comedy, just as “Fun Home” or “Next to Normal” represents a different school. Both can be effective, and though it may be a noble attempt to marry the two, in the case of “Molly Brown” it doesn’t work. Molly herself may be unsinkable, but this leaky vessel is stuck in port.
ALL THE NATALIE PORTMANS | Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 W. 52nd St. | Through Mar. 29: Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m. | $56-$76 at mcctheater.org or 646-506-9393 | Two hrs., 10 mins., with intermission
THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN | Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St., btwn. Pitt St. & E. Broadway | Through Apr. 5: Tue.-Sun. at 7:30 p.m.; weekend matinees on varying schedule | $65-$85 at transportgroup.org/ Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission