By Bill Beard
Theater-goers, ALERT! Right now, stateline audiences can enjoy the rolicking, robust musical comedy Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in a stunning new production by the ever-dependable Fireside Theatre in Fort Atkinson, Wis.
For anyone who remembers the 1954 film 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 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.
From the moment the Fireside stage lights come up on the tall (really tall!), ruggedly handsome actor standing there, we immediately know that this can only be Adam Pontipee, mountain woodsman, having come down to town “a-shopping for a wife.” Oh, sure, the program says it is the well-known Jon Reinhold, star of many other musicals; but that doesn’t really matter. We don’t need the real-life actor’s name! This is already the ultimate Adam Pontipee; the eldest of seven mountaineer brothers, the wild and wooly Pontipee clan! And when he opens his mouth and fills the theater with his fabulous singing voice, we are mesmerized. The fact that he goes on to prove his agility and ability as an actor is just proof of our first impression.
Set in the Oregon frontier of 1850, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is exactly what the title describes. It all begins with Adam’s search. Luckily, he meets Milly, played brilliantly by the vivacious and feisty Katie Sina, remembered fondly as that other feisty Milly, the Thoroughly Modern one. She is again vibrant and beautiful, and equally exciting.
When Adam spies, Milly and turns on his charm — it is love-at-first-sight-magic, and he convinces her to marry him and return to his mountain cabin. But 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 involves 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.
The cast is basically strong. Again, the quality of the dancing is key; and this cast is filled with good dancers. But the real dance credit for this, and many shows here at The Fireside, is the always creative choreography of the brilliant Kate Swan. Congratulations to Director Ed Flesch for bringing this talented artist to us again, her 20th production for Fireside. High points include the elaborateness of the huge and energetic “Church Social” dance (which replaces the big “barn-raising” in the film), and, of course, the graceful lyricism of the girls’ dream dance. Specific kudos for the ingenious handling of what could have been a really dull number, “We Gotta Make It Through The Winter” (the “Lonesome Polecat” number). This was some of the best staging and use of props in choreography that I’ve ever seen; and the men’s harmonizing was absolutely great. This number more than made up for the earlier “Goin’ Courtin’”, which, though it took place before the brothers’ “makeover” by Milly, was still far too caricatured and over the top.
Actually, the six Pontipee brothers were a somewhat unconventional conclave. Talented all! Woodsmanesque? Yes; but something of an eccentric collection of kith and kin. But their dancing was supremely energetic and precise, their voices full and rich, and their characters dimensional and fully realized. A special nod to the natural believability and comic instinct of Craig Blake as Caleb.
The six “brides” represented a similar range of types; and again, their dancing was superb and their characterizations carefully individualized. The ensemble of townspeople and families was composed of the same top level of dancer-singer-actors. Costumes by the creative Robin Buerger were super, some of the dresses stunning.
This is not a perfect production. But the flaws are few and 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, especially when a magnificent five-course meal comes with it. The show plays through Oct. 23, and is a wonderful treat for the whole family. Call 800-477-9505 or go online at www.firesidetheatre.com.
From the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2011, issue