|J. Morgan White (Daniel), Carson Twitchell (Caleb), Jarid Faubel (standing, Adam Pontipee), Eric Sciotto (Frank), Alex Larson (Gideon), Karl Warden (Benjamin), Michael R. Clement (Ephraim)|
(photo: Jenny Sharp)
The theatre world is suddenly awash with matchmaking. Just this past week it was Goodspeed Opera’s revival of “Fiddler”; now here we have Maine State Music Theatre’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”; all we need is a revival of “Hello, Dolly!” for a perfect trifecta. “Seven Brides” isn‘t quite a revival since it traces its existence back to the original 1954 film with Howard Keel and Jane Powell (in “gayest color”, yet) rather than to any one live theatre version. There was, however, a Broadway version in 1982 which famously flopped, but more about that later. This current production’s original source was one of the most honored and beloved film musicals of all time. It was nominated for no fewer than five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Editing, and Scoring of a Musical (for which it won an Oscar, in a category no longer honored). It’s been named by the American Film Institute as one of the best American movie musicals ever made, in large part because of the wondrous choreography by Michael Kidd, and its extraordinary use of the new form known as CinemaScope. It was also the basis for a 1982 TV series that lasted one season. The logical question might be, why did it take almost three decades before it was presented in a live theatre performance, and where did that idea go wrong?
After a brief Miami run and touring around the country, the live version opened on Broadway in 1982, after fifteen previews. It was July. It starred Debbie Boone. It was choreographed by Jerry Jackson (his only Broadway effort, known more for his work on the Las Vegas “Folies Bergère”). It lasted all of five performances. It still somehow snagged a single Tony nomination, for Best Original Score. This critic had the dubious distinction of attending the Barcelona 2003 production with acting in the school of the Three Stooges, canned music and singing (in Catalan, the local language), and truly uninspired choreography. More’s the pity, since this is supremely a dancing show, and when the hoofing’s as good as it is in the MSMT rendering, it’s a smash hit if there ever was one. Credit for this first should go to the team of Patti Colombo, the Director and Choreographer, and Karl Warden, not only Associate Director and Choreographer but also Dance Captain and one of the stars of the show. Their extraordinarily creative work takes this to a new level, overcoming the musical’s shortcomings, primarily the Book attributed to Lawrence Kasha and David Landay. (One was reminded of a line in the title song of another show set in the Old West, “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye”). The score is a blending of a few numbers from the film with Music by Gene de Paul and Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, with some songs dropped (notably “When You’re in Love”). Most of the numbers in the second act were written by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn. It should be noted that numbers such as the blithely bovine “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”, and the oblivious “Sobbin’ Women” (a song based on a mass abduction), are understandably not endearing for their political correctness; times have changed indeed for the better. At least they dropped “A Woman Oughta Know Her Place”.
Gender politics aside, the story is basically harmless geometry about a bevy of possible wives and their prospective spouses. The attractive cast of no fewer than twenty-seven (over half of them making their MSMT debuts) includes the titular seven couples: Adam Pontipee (Jarid Faubel) and Milly Bradon (Heidi Kettenring), who in fact do marry at the beginning of the play, Benjamin (Karl Warden) and Dorcas (Merrill West), Caleb (Carson Twitchell) and Ruth (Shanna Heverly), Daniel (J. Morgan White) and Martha (Tara Lynn Steele), Ephraim (Michael R. Clement) and Liza (Jessica Lawyer), Frankincense (Eric Sciotto) and Sarah (Samantha Hewes), and Gideon (Alex Larson) and Alice (Sarah Marie Jenkins), whose father, conveniently, is the local preacher, played by David Girolmo, who also plays Mr. Bixby and Mr. Sanders. After some great dancing numbers and a long winter (don’t ask), eventually they all end up with the right couplings. Various other townspeople include Jeb (Eric Shorey), Joel (Edward Andrew Lawrence). Mrs. Bixby (Rebecca Beck), Zeke (Andrew Winans), Luke (Dylan Cole Passman), Matt (Alec Cohen), Nathan (Kevin Nietzel), Jennifer Maurer and Zoe Raphael. The town musicians are played by Liz Kershenbaum, Neil James and especially Silas Moores as an on-stage solo violinist. Townswomen were Zoe Raphael and Jennifer Maurer. Faubel and Kettenring make a sweet couple with a couple of sweet voices, and there’s outstanding work from the whole cast, with Warden, Larson and Sciotto particularly noteworthy. Technical crew creations are also all terrific, from the effective Scenic Design by Charles S. Kading to the lovely Costume Design by Kurt Alger, Lighting Design by Dan Efros, Sound Design by Colin Whitely, Music Direction by Edward Reichert, and Props by Kyle Melton.
Kudos for Colombo for giving this some true grit, as 1856 Oregon should have, and stompin’ and foolin’ (as well as beefcake and cheesecake) for all. And though it’s largely a product of its times, there’s enough strength in the female roles (Milly, most importantly) to provide enough old-fashioned fun to satisfy us all. For the dancers and the choreography alone, we should be glad this show has been reborn. And more good news: the next musical by MSMT, “Footloose”, brings Colombo and Warden back. Now that’s what you’d call an encore!
|Alex Larson (Gideon), Michael R. Clement (Ephraim), Karl Warden|
(photo: Jenny Sharp)