The 1954 MGM musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is usually remembered with sentimental affection for Michael Kidd’s athletic, testosterone-driven, CinemaScope-embracing barn-raising dance. But there’s little else to recommend it. There was even less to recommend in the flop 1982 Broadway adaptation starring pop singer Debby Boone, which closed after five performances. So it’s an agreeable surprise that Goodspeed Musicals has turned this cubic zirconia into a real gem of a show.
The staging is distinguished by the tasteful and authoritative eye of director Greg Genakas, amazing choreography by Patti Colombo (especially given the perimeters of a living room-size stage) and a cast of likable lumberjacks and sassy frontier gals that would make any pioneer proud. The show, which has aspirations to tour, might be a hit in blue as well as red states if its integrity, intimacy and authenticity can be preserved, and if it can refrain from turning a slight Americana story into pure hokum.
Among the true pleasures of the show are the simplicity of Russell Metheny’s fine pinewood set; Gregory Gale’s varied costumes, which avoid the forever-plaid look; the naturalness in the playing by the 27-member cast; and the willingness of the show to kick up its heels every chance it gets.
Jacquelyn Piro as a feisty, eminently practical Milly (played in the film by Jane Powell) begins the show alone onstage in an open-covered wagon. But look closely and the wagon is deconstructed, as sawhorses, planks, crates, barrels and metal framing are taken away to be used in other scenes. It’s not only the pioneers but the production that recycles, ingeniously giving the show an easygoing, familiar, no-waste feel without a lick of condescension or pandering.
Immediately there’s a square dance introducing the audience to some of the townsfolk, customs and humor of frontier life in the Oregon territory in 1850. Enter Adam Pontipee, a big bear of a lumberjack, farmer and fighter who gets to town only a few times a year from the wilderness. He’s come looking for a bride to take home to the backwoods, along with other practical provisions like chewing tobacco. As played by Burke Moses with deadpan machismo, he’s a charming, sly hunk of a man with a bass-baritone voice to swoon for, which the ladies in town promptly do.
In what is surely the quickest courtship in musical comedy history, Adam and Millie meet, wed and are off to the Pontipee spread, where she unhappily discovers she has an instant brood of her own with new husband’s six unruly, raunchy and rugged brothers. The kitchen, she is told, is to the right.
But it’s clear that Milly understands the power of a good meal, a clean shirt and feminine companionship. Soon the slightly civilized brothers decide to go after some brides of their own, in a scene best described as “Stomp” meets “Little Women.” When the boys kidnap their sweeties from their families in town, however, they go too far, bringing upon themselves the wrath of the community and causing a split between Adam and Milly.
But the complications aren’t terribly complicated, and lacking the darkness or subtext of “Carousel” (or even “Oklahoma!”), the show depends solely on its deft execution. It also doesn’t have the most sparking dialogue, but the cast manages to land just the right humor, and the storytelling has a truthfulness that beguiles. Especially winning is Eric Sciotto’s hysterically hot-headed Frank, Jim T. Ruttman’s Benjamin, Mahri Relin’s sultry Dorcas and the sweet sincerity of Brian Hissong as Gideon.
The trouble with the musical has always been the lack of outstanding songs. While “Bless Your Beautiful Hide,” “Lonesome Polecat,” “Goin’ Courtin'” and “Sobbin’ Women” have their charms, none is a breakout hit. And the additional songs for the stage version by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn add little.
Adam gets at least a backstory with a soliloquy for this production, “Where Were You?” which also gives him a little more presence in the second act. Moses’ big-note voice nails the song. “Love Never Goes Away” supplies a nice moment for Adam, Milly and youngest brother Gideon. But a lullaby sung to Milly’s baby brings out the corn in an otherwise carb-free show (“I can see rainbows in your smile,” “You’re the lamp that lights my way”).
But even a few lapses into sappiness are redeemed by Colombo’s breathtaking and varied choreography. With a chorus of brothers, brides and suitors, the stage bursts with the kind of dancing joy not seen onstage in a long time. It may even bring back calico and flannel.