Staving off — at least temporarily — a financial crisis and the much-publicized threat of being forced to shut down permanently, the historic Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., has mounted and delivered a rollicking and tuneful revival of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Based on the classic 1954 MGM film, the tuner proves to be exuberant family entertainment, with an appealing cast and more than a dollop of gusto.
Lawrence Kasha and David Landay’s uncluttered book focuses on a family of love-starved lumberjacks who kidnap some winsome young lasses and take them against their will to their mountain retreat to be their brides. An avalanche imprisons them for the long hard winter, and the brothers respectfully keep their distance until a preacher arrives with the spring thaw to make matters legal.
The true glory of the show is Patti Columbo’s stunning choreography. The dance in which the brothers confront the townsfolk is a rousing acrobatic frontier ballet. The dancers leap over barrels and planks with breathtaking agility, and the ladies join in the victory of the strapping brothers for a stirring finale. The number prompted the extremely rare experience at Paper Mill of a standing ovation midway through the first act.
The cast is led by Edward Watts as rugged, handsome mountain man Adam Pontipee, and a pert and pretty Michelle Dawson as his feisty bride. They are blessed with fine support from the calico-clad ladies and lusty brothers. Each brings individuality and clarity to their characters, especially Christian Delcroix as the moonstruck youngest sibling who is the lonesomest polecat of all.
The most pleasurable songs are still those from the film as penned by lyricist Johnny Mercer and composer Gene de Paul. Dawson is especially appealing as she teaches the brothers the way of romance and proper courtship with “Goin’ Courtin’,” and blushingly reveals the first flush of love with “Wonderful, Wonderful Day.”
Watts displays a warm, booming voice right from the start with “Bless Your Beautiful Hide.”
Additional songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn are a tad labored, with the exception of “Love Never Goes Away,” in which Dawson, Watts and Delcroix express their characters’ inner yearnings.
Director Scott Schwartz has harnessed the action with a firm focus on the story’s fun and fancy-free aspects, fluently framed by designer Anna Louizos amid tall timber, snow-capped mountains and cozy cabins.
Unfortunately, all this welcome hootin’ and hollerin’ just might be silenced by the weekend, as the venerable Paper Mill Playhouse faces the seemingly impossible task of raising a further million dollars. The subscription base for the historic theater dropped considerably under artistic director Michael Gennaro, who resigned last year. Desperate for grants and loans to come to the rescue, Paper Mill’s future appears increasingly uncertain. Subscribers now number less than half the 40,000 the Playhouse accommodated seven years ago.
Despite the seeming doom of the 69-year-old institution, the theater has announced a production of “Pirates,” a new adaptation of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, “The Pirates of Penzance,” for a summer run. Should the Paper Mill survive the financial crunch, its 2007-8 season will offer a new musical adaptation of “Frankenstein,” followed by “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Miracle Worker,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”