" ... And Sassy as Can Be," Seven Brides
Seven Brides began life as a beloved 1954 MGM movie musical distinguished by the magnificent screen choreography of Michael Kidd and a delightful, sprightly score by Johnny Mercer (lyrics) and Gene de Paul (music). The current production of Seven Brides is a revised and vastly improved version of the stage adaptation with additional songs (music and lyrics by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn) which had a brief Broadway run in 1982. The additional song stack here varies from that of the Broadway engagement. There are more reprises and dances now, and "Lonesome Polecat" from the original movie has been restored.
Of course, credit must be given to the original movie and its concept, choreography, score and screenplay (Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, and Dorothy Kingsley) as adopted for the stage by Lawrence Kasha and David Landay. However, it is the work of the artists who have brought the current production to Paper Mill which is most crucial.
The table is set by the beautiful and bountiful, clever and colorful, witty and wondrous set design of Anna Louizos. Enchanting are the extensive cut out designs of the town's main street buildings, the multilevel forest design which has trees dropping from the flies and sliding across the stage in multiple planes across the stage, the various areas integrated into the setting of the brothers' farmhouse, and the verdant and flower-dotted outdoor spring setting backdropped by a beautifully painted snow capped mountain. Louizo's eminently playable designs always entertain the eye with their beauty and the mind with their brilliant invention. There is a grandeur here which Paper Mill audiences had come to expect, and it is no small thing that they are getting it here full throttle.
Director Scott Schwartz has kept the show moving briskly, obtained lively, fun performances from a fresh, young cast, and filled each scene with nuanced performance details and humor. Some of it is a mite too broad and corny, but it is largely fittin' and entertainin'. Likely, Schwartz should be credited with the delightful employment of an onstage country band with banjo (replaced by a mandolin for a later tune), guitar, accordion and triangle, and for the delightful new near-opening sequence in which townsfolk perform a square dance to the new song "Gallant and Correct." Most importantly, Schwartz has seen to it that this is the dancingest Seven Brides ever.
Which leads us to the evening's major discovery, choreographer Patti Colombo. Her only listed theatre credit pre-Seven Brides is the Cathy Rigby Peter Pan. Colombo's work throughout is fine. Without putting too fine a point on it, I would say that her challenge dance performed when the brothers go to town to court their intended (there is no barn raising) and end up jousting with the townies strongly suggests the style that Michael Kidd employed in the film. The acrobatic dancing which makes for a spectacular finish to this number brought many in the opening night audience to their feet. However, it is in the second act that this stage version outshines the classic film. With the use of the additional songs and a number of reprises, act two feels like a non-stop festival of dance and music. The extended spring dance, buoyant and exquisite, with lush setting and airy costumes (Jess Goldstein) provides the rapture which lifts the entire enterprise to a higher level. There is even a Sadie Hawkins Day (in reverse) style dance through the woods as the "brides" hide out when the town folk come out to rescue them, which is followed in turn by a wedding dance which brings down the final curtain.
The imposing Edward Watts is a first rate Adam Pontipee. His is a smooth, standard characterization, and he delivers vocally with a strong and accurate baritone. As his Milly, Michelle Dawson brings to the role a sense of spunk and tensile strength which makes her performance a distinct cut above. Also, unlike Jane Powell in the film, Dawson is not overly operatic in her strong and lovely vocalizations.
All evening long, the entire cast simply gets down to work and delivers energetic and accurate performances. The reams of lively choreography are well and sometimes spectacularly danced by the game cast. They comprise a delightful ensemble, and are all worthy of praise.
The songs written for the stage version usually perform their functions well. One of a couple of exceptions is the unpleasant and ponderous "Where Were You"
It is notable that this Seven Brides is a co-production with Theatre Under The Stars (Houston) and North Shore Music Theatre (Beverly, Massachusetts). Co-producing with other full size musical theatres provides financial benefits facilitates the elaborate musical productions that are so pleasing to Paper Mill audiences .
Thanks to this lavish and delightful production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, audiences can again luxuriate in the aura of delight which had earned Paper Mill the largest subscriber base of any regional theatre in America. While its future is uncertain, it is something special to experience the feel of Paper Mill's glorious past.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers continues performances through May 13 (Eves: Wed., Thurs. & Sun. 7:30 p.m./ Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m.; Mats. Thurs., Sat. & Sun. 2 p.m.) at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; on-line: www.papermill.org
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Book by Lawrence Kasha and David Landay, Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Music by Gene de Paul, New Songs and Additional Lyrics by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn (based on the MGM film and the story "The Sobbin' Women" by Stephen Vincent Benet); directed by Scott Schwartz; choreographed by Patti Colombo