By Bill Beard
For anyone who remembers the 1954 film of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, starring Jane Powell and Howard Keel, the first image should be of the fantastic dancing, brilliantly choreographed by the inimitable Michael Kidd, and in particular, the marvelous “barn-raising” dance sequence. The movie ranks high on “lists of favorites” in the USA and the U.K., and is preserved and deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the U.S. National Film Registry.
As a stage musical, it has never equaled the success of the film. After a promising national tour, its 1982 New York opening was short-lived; although the 1985 production in London was well received. U.S. revivals in 2005 and 2007 by regional theaters were highly praised, and it has become a popular show for both professional regional groups and amateur theaters with good dancers.
Set in the Oregon frontier of 1850, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the tale of Adam Pontipee, an outdoorsman who ventures down into town looking for a bride. He convinces the vivacious and feisty Milly to marry him and return to his mountain cabin. Milly’s ecstasy quickly sours when she finds she is also stuck with taking care of Adam’s six unkempt, burly brothers. Deciding to make the marriage work, Milly hatches a plan to marry off the brothers, which includes teaching them how to court women, including lessons in manners and dance. This plan turns out to be much more difficult than originally thought, when the six brothers find girls, but in a passionate panic, kidnap them and take them back to the cabin, where an avalanche traps them all for the duration of the winter. But the complications lead, of course, to the inevitable, requisite happy ending. Add a variety of songs, dance and a lot of farcical action, and you have a good, old-fashioned musical comedy.
Now, Chicago audiences can enjoy a strong production of Seven Brides by the ever-dependable Drury Lane Oakbrook. Directed by Bill Jenkins, chairman of the Ball State University Department of Theatre and Dance, this is his debut at Oakbrook, although he has worked with several other regional theaters.
The choreography by Jeff Award winner Tammy Mader is vibrant and dynamic, and the cast handles it with energy and enthusiasm. Mader wisely follows the athletic, acrobatic style of Patti Colombo’s original choreography. The opening of the show is a bit pedestrian until the first big production number; then, it soars with energy. However, certainly one of the high points of the evening is in the graceful lyricism of the girls’ dream dance.
The cast is basically strong. Again, the quality of the dancing is key; and this cast is filled with good dancers. I particularly enjoyed the energy of Zach Zube as the youngest brother, Gideon, comparing very well to the movie’s Russ Tamblyn, who had a reputation as a top tumbler as well as a fine dancer.
The leading lovers, Adam and Milly (Howard Keel and Jane Powell in the movie), are well handled by Steve Blanchard, who holds credits on Broadway and many regional theaters, and Abby Mueller, with extensive Chicago and Midwest experience, especially Marriott Lincolnshire. Mr. Blanchard is strong of appearance and character, but with a singing voice that sometimes does not quite match that strength. Ms. Mueller, on the other hand, has a lovely, supple voice, and though not a raving beauty, creates a delightful, almost mischievous Milly.
The rest of the Pontipee brothers are a somewhat unconventional conclave. Talented all; woodsmanesque? yes; but something of an eccentric collection of kith and kin. With some extra facial hair and a couple of ample waistlines, some of them looked older than big brother Adam. They just didn’t look a lot like brothers. But their dancing was energetic and full of life, their voices full and rich, and their characters dimensional and fully realized.
The six “brides” represented a similar range of types; and again, the voices were excellent and their characterizations carefully individualized.
I loved the set. The design was authentic, and the huge beams appeared to have been cut and hewn right from the Oregon Territory’s virgin forests. At the intermission, my visitor from Maine, a historic building restorationist, was amazed, and insisted on walking down to the stage for a closer examination. The only tiny flaw he found was that there were “trunnels” (tree-nails) on both sides of the corners, which would not have been done.
Even the on-stage hoedown music was authentic, right down to the old-time body-slapping “ham bone,” which delighted my young college-cum-professional percussionist friend. Details like these are indications of a strong directorial style.
This is not a perfect production. But the flaws lie primarily in the book; it’s actually a very old-fashioned show, and it’s wonderful to see it performed well. It is very much worth the trip, the time and the admission. It plays at the beautiful Drury Lane Oakbrook through Dec. 19, and is a wonderful holiday treat for the whole family. Go! Call (630) 530-0111.
From the Nov. 24-30, 2010 issue