Garland — Ambitious dance sequences and one outstanding singer kept Garland Summer Musicals’ production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers clipping along neatly on opening night. There’s an unusually complex history beneath this operetta-like score, as well as some problematic cultural issues in the storyline, but the suburban audience clearly enjoyed the vivid colors and earnest energy in place for this production at Granville Arts Center.
The events that lead to this production go back three thousand years, to earliest Rome and an ancient legend. The tale was eventually recorded, a thousand years later, in Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans in about 100 AD. Early 20th-century American author Stephen Vincent Benet recast the ancient narrative into a short story titled “The Sobbin’ Women,” set on the American frontier.
In 1954, that story became the basis of the sleeper-hit MGM movie musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the success of which hinged on a tuneful song list and score, and a gorgeous frontier ballet (choreographed by the great Michael Kidd) at the heart of the show. Attempts to produce a big-scale stage musical based on the movie in the late 1970s failed on Broadway and enjoyed only limited success on London’s West End, but a further adaptation has become part of the standard repertoire of regional companies throughout the English-speaking world.
Hence the current Garland production, in which Michael Isaac easily captures the spotlight in his starring role as frontiersman (and oldest brother) Adam Pontipee. Isaac swaggers through the role handsomely, showing off a well-focused lyric baritone voice with a beautiful tone that soars through the high notes. Opposite Isaac, Lauren LeBlanc flavors the romantic lead role of Milly with a dose of Annie-Oakley-style frontier grit, producing a character who is totally convincing as she tames a passel of frontiersman with a combination of honey and determination. Likewise, her voice stirs together sweetness with an intriguing hint of dusky texture.
The youthful ensemble of the six remaining Pontipee brothers tussle across the stage with wide-eyed determination in their transformation from mannerless bumpkins to polite boys possessing manly etiquette, self-control, and romantic awareness. Six young female actors simper and sigh with equal energy, ripe to fall in love, while an additional ensemble of town boys compete for their affection as stern older townsfolk look on. (Actors from Eastfield College, a partner in the production, add their youth and energy to the show.)
Director Ben Shurr maneuvers these various elements neatly and engagingly, while Kelly McCain’s choreography produces the biggest thrills of the evening, with swirling skirts and leaping young men aplenty. The score magnificently sets up the dance contest between town boys and frontiersman, with the young ladies tossed between, and McCain captures the interplay beautifully. While the choreographic execution isn’t always perfect, the energy and representation of character among the dancers never fails. Even this jaded critic thoroughly enjoyed the visually rich array of dance numbers, choral scenes, and fight sequences.
Kelly Cox’s sets efficiently create a quaint Hollywood-style vision of a frontier town; alternate scenes present a particularly fine, engagingly designed rendition of the Pontipee homestead. (The avalanche scene is nicely represented by a clip from the 1954 movie version.) Larry Miller conducts the substantial 14-member orchestra with the verve this score deserves, particularly in the winning muscularity of the crowning ballet movements. Even with a little more digital presence in the orchestra than would be ideal, the beauties of the score shine through.
And about those aforementioned cultural issues: The ancient Roman tale from which the plot derives is traditionally known as “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” describing the abduction by the early Romans of women from nearby settlements of the Sabine people. (The extent to which the abduction may have been rape in the modern sense is a matter of debate, since the meaning of that word has evolved over the centuries.) The real problem for 21st-century audiences lies in the concept of women being unwillingly kidnapped and then falling in love with their kidnappers. Benet, his successors in Hollywood, the creators of the stage version, and the participants in this production all make it clear that the young ladies are quite attracted to the young men from first encounter. Still, the concept of abduction as part of romantic relationships is a troubling relic from the past, and will be an inherent burden for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as long as the piece is part of the theatrical repertoire.
Incidentally, along the way from ancient narrative to the current version for stage, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers accumulated an almost record-breaking number of contributors. To wit: story by Plutarch and Benet; screenplay by Albert Hackett, France Goodrich, and Dorothy Kingsley; book for the stage version by Lawrence Kasha and David Landay; lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Al Kasha, and Joel Hirschhorn; and music by Gene de Paul, Al Kasha, and Joel Hirschhorn. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.