Review: In enjoyable ‘Brides,’ far from gender equality, but making progress
So it’s the 1850s, and this mountain man living in the wild and decidedly non-CNN-receiving Oregon Territory walks into a general store and asks, “You wouldn’t happen to have a wife in stock?”
It’s not a set-up for a bad joke, but rather an early reminder in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” that in order to enjoy this delightful but significantly dated new Good Company Players production, you have to gently disengage yourself from this month’s headlines for a couple of hours and tell yourself: “Things were different back then.”
Here’s what surprises me about this crisp and buoyant production: It wasn’t hard for me to do just that. I was prepared for repeated wincing and eye-rolling at this musical’s book, particularly when it gets to the part when six of the brothers march off to town and “kidnap” their girlfriends in order to marry them. Yes, this is fairly problematic today in light of the #MeToo movement and the current national discussion about sexual assault, but co-directors Laurie Pessano and Steve Souza and their rousing cast manage to skirt any kind of icky feeling in terms of the kidnapping plot point.
The transition from the 21st century back to earlier times is made easier by two stellar performances in “Seven Brides.” Meg Clark, in her first leading GCP role, brings a sweet yet pert, radiant but strong sense of empowerment to the role of Milly, the frontier waitress tired of being harassed by her male customers. From her first song, “Wonderful Day,” her voice seems to permeate the production like a just-rung bell. There’s no question: Clark glows with a warmth and finesse beyond her years.
Then there’s Chris Moran’s Adam, the oldest brother (and the one who would rather pick up a wife in the 1850s version of Wal-Mart rather than actually woo one). Moran is a sensitive and mostly decent chap, if not as brusque as I’d expect from the character, and his voice is rattlingly good. It booms out with such power and control that I almost felt he could actually damage the walls of Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater with the reverberations. Time and again, in both solos and duets with Clark, Moran’s vocals bring a smooth and accomplished air to the production, and also rather a nostalgic one. He brings us back to an earlier time when Broadway stars sang all the way to the back of the balcony with ease.
Milly gets hitched early on to Adam, who sort of forgets to tell her that he has six rowdy and unkempt brothers living in an isolated mountain cabin back home. What follows is your standard makeover storyline — but with a twist. After Milly cleans up the boys nice and purty and teaches them to dance, they fall for six gals in town. But when they’re barred from town for bad behavior, they take matters into their own hands and stage a mass abduction.
The strange thing is that there is actually a classical underpinning to this tale. One of the few books Adam has in the cabin includes the ancient Roman legend of “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” which involved Roman soldiers abducting wives for themselves from enemy territory. (It inspired Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story “The Sobbin’ Women, upon which “Seven Brides is based.) Does the ancient provenance of the storyline — even more ancient than the 1850s — make me more inclined to give it a pass in terms of not passing contemporary muster in terms of gender issues? Probably. All I know is that it’s strange and kind of wonderful to have my college art history professor’s favorite painting (“The Rape of the Sabine Women” by Poussin) be a major plot point in a musical comedy.
Much of the rest of the production is top-notch, from Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s beautiful color palette for the costumes to lighting designer Andrea Henrickson’s falling-snow effect. David Pierce’s set is filled with great little details (I love the rooster and hen above the barn door.) And Kaye Migaki’s exuberant choreography is a highlight, especially the famed “Social Dance,” which gives us some amazing visual moments of swooshing skirts in unison. The brothers, brides and other gentlemen “suitors” in town form an interesting love triangle, so to speak, and the choreography often advances that storyline with great cleverness.
I’d be remiss, too, in not singling out those brothers, because their camaraderie and enthusiasm also help the show shine. Each of the six carve out a distinct personality on stage, from Anthony teNyenhuis’ goofy/maniacal tendencies and Shawn Williams’ slow-on-the-uptake gregariousness to Teddy Maldonado’s big brother charm and tag-teamers Jonathan Padilla and Brady Crenshaw’s boisterous enthusiasm. Ben Applegate gets a special place in the spotlight as the youngest brother, and a later scene between him and eldest brother Adam has a nice emotional resonance.
I’m sure that for some people, the pesky details of the plot might be too much to tolerate. I respect that. But for me, at least, the whole thing is so silly that it doesn’t offend. Is “Seven Brides” a deeply felt musical with a relevant social message? Not in the traditional sense. But the women in this play do end up taking agency over their own lives. They manage to make things work in their time. Now if we can only make things work in ours.