In the panoply of strong female characters in musical theater — Dolly Levi, Auntie Mame, Evita Peron, Little Orphan Annie, Eliza Doolittle, Charity Hope Valentine, to name a few — none is bolder and more adorable than Molly Tobin, the spunky tomboy with a show title that says it all: The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
Molly does survive it all — roughhousing brothers, backwoods poverty, riches-to-rags, social ostracism, even the sinking of the Titanic — with an indomitable spirit.
Her story opens Thursday at Richey Suncoast Theatre and continues weekends through May 29, with a cast of 42 singers, dancers and actors.
Set in the early 1900s in the Colorado mountains, the Meredith Willson musical begins as Molly (Megan Gillespie, Ariel in Footloose) tussles with her brothers Michael (Chris Cavalier, Tom in No, No, Nanette), Aloysius (Carl Unkle) and Patrick (Micah Laird, Willard in Footloose), then packs up to leave home, vowing I Ain't Down Yet.
She lands in Leadville, a mining town, where she meets and falls in love with miner J.J. "Leadville" Johnny Brown (Keith Surplus, Bill in Applause). They strike it rich, but are shunned by Denver society, so they set off for Europe.
There, they meet with princes and princesses who are intrigued by them. When Prince DeLong (Steve Ailing, Ugly in Honk!) seems to become too intrigued, Johnny takes off, leaving Molly on her own.
This leads to what could be tragedy, but for the bravery and determination that Molly has shown all her life.
Although some historians dispute parts of the story, Molly Brown is said to be based on the real life of Margaret Tobin, who was born in Missouri and moved to Denver to seek her fortune. She married a miner who struck it rich in the mines of Leadville, and the couple bought a 16-room house in Denver. That house is now a museum and popular tourist stop called the Molly Brown House.
While the story in the musical isn't a strict re-telling of Tobin's life, she was indeed listed as a passenger on the Titanic who was picked up in lifeboat No. 6 by the Carpathia, and many survivors say she rowed that lifeboat for more than seven hours to save the passengers and herself, earning the nickname "Unsinkable."
The 1960 stage play was made into a movie in 1964, starring Debbie Reynolds in the title role.