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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, You Can't Take It With You
and Fruitcake with Jennifer Holliday
Highlight Seattle's Holiday Entertainment Menu

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Luke Longacre, Wes Hart, Karl Warden, Kyle Patrick Vaughn, Demian Boergardine and Mo Brady
Two of the three servings amidst the horde of Seattle holiday shows that opened recently have nothing to do with the season per se, but they, as well as the annual Seattle Men's Chorus holiday concert, are most worthy of mention here on Talkin' Broadway.

The 5th Avenue Theatre's locally produced (and largely locally cast) production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a triumph of production over content. The barely passable stage adaptation of the classic M-G-M film musical about seven backwoods bachelors abducting and finally marrying seven curvaceous town girls is an unabashed joy, thanks to naturalistic and engaging direction by Alison Narver, and a vocally rich and dance-happy company, rousingly staged by choreographer Patti Columbo. Columbo recreates the magic and dazzle of the film's choreographer Michael Kidd, adding in a pinch of Agnes DeMille and a few of her own marvelous secret ingredients. The film's original songs, mostly present, include the rousingly goofy "Bless Your Beautiful Hide," the lilting "Wonderful, Wonderful Day," "Goin' Courting" and "Lonesome Polecat"; and, while the songwriting team of Johnny Mercer and Gene DePaul would do even better with their stage score of Li'l Abner a few years later, their tunes are superior to the Al Kasha/Joel Hirschhorn interpolations, save the truly lovely principal ballad "Love Never Goes Away." The book by Lawrence Kasha and David S. Landay (adapted from the film and based on Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Sobbin' Women"), when it isn't relying on groaningly enjoyable cornporne jokes and gags, is mostly a stage wait between the songs and vivid dances. But the overall effect of what's onstage at the 5th is of a helluva crowd-pleasing good time.

As Adam, the eldest of the seven turn-of-the century Oregon brothers, Edward Watts has a booming bass-baritone voice, rugged good looks and an ability to kid himself. Even better, and a world of an improvement from the trilling soprano of the film's Jane Powell, is the feisty, sassy and golden voiced Laura Griffiths as Adam's force to be reckoned with bride Milly. Able to caress a ballad tenderly, or belt one out of the barnyard, Griffiths, a young New York vet, is the heart of the show. Top local acting honors go to Mo Brady in a break-out performance as the awkward youngest brother, Gideon. The other six brothers, seven brides (including the scene-stealing Shanna Palmer) and their ultimately ditched townfolk suitors are a savvy mix of local and out of town triple threats, winning sustained applause on opening night for all of the danciest sequences, especially the well-remembered "Challenge Dance." Much to their credit, one never feels for a moment that their dancing is any less amazing than what you remember from the movie. The show looks good too, with satisfyingly folksy scenery by Anna Louizos and a nuanced lighting design by Tom Sturge. Even the moment when the brothers kidnap the would-be brides and get cut off from town by an avalanche works, and works well.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers still has its misogynous moments as scripted and sung, but what you leave the show with is a big old gap-toothed grin, and these days that's quite a gift.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers runs Tuesdays-Sundays through Dec. 28, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $22-$81 (206-625-1900/www.5thavenue.org).

Photo: Bootsy Holler

You Can't Take It With You
Ben Hollandsworth, Anne Allgood, Mark Chamberlin and Frank Corrado
Perhaps best remembered as an Academy Award winning Frank Capra film in 1938, the 1936 Pulitzer Prize winning comedy You Can't Take It With You, written by then-reigning comedy playwright kings George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, is a depression-era comedy whose time has come again, judging from Warner Shook's classy and often laugh till you ache production at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the venerable company that can use a hit that packs in the crowds like this one, right now. Shook, one-time artistic director of the Rep's next door neighbor Intiman, follows up his triumph a year ago, the starry locally cast smash version of The Women at Act Theatre, with an equally starry troupe to inhabit the cuckoo but congenial Sycamore family, their friends and wary outside acquaintances. The three-act, two-intermission play whizzes by in 2 hours and fifteen minutes.

The most serious concern in the story is whether the "sane" Sycamore, working girl daughter Alice, played with sunny charm and a great way with an appalled reaction to her family's foibles by Elise Karolina Hunt, will marry her stuffy boss' too good to be true son and heir Tony Kirby (the immensely likable Ben Hollandsworth), despite the Kirby's disastrous, mistimed visit with Alice's family. One guess whether she does or not. You guessed!

In a wholly delicious cast, there are standouts. Anne Allgood drolly underplays the Sycamore matriarch, unproduced and unfinished playwright Penny; wise Grandpa is the always reliable Michael Winters, blending the character's wisdom and whimsy with consummate ease; and Annette Toutonghi tickles the funny bone repeatedly as Alice's older sister, candy chef cum ballerina Essie. If this were a more just world, Toutonghi would be cracking up the masses on TV or at the movies, but on the other hand, Seattle is lucky to have held onto her.

Frank Corrado is a comic explosion as Essie's obnoxious and opinionated ballet master Kolenkhov; Suzy Hunt as Gay Wellington, an alcoholic actress to the last gin fizz gets a show-stopping laugh of some length with an inappropriately risqué limerick on her exit; Mark Chamberlain fills out his stuffed shirt admirably as Mr. Kirby; and Kimberly King's postures and facial reactions as his bemused Mrs. are a comedy master class in themselves. As Reba the African American cook and Donald her "on relief" beau, Khatt Taylor and Cecil Luellen sidestep stereotype (as Kaufman and Hart appear to have written their characters to) and excel as two of the saner souls in the Sycamore home. Allen Galli perfectly fits the role of fireworks maker and permanent sad sack guest Mr. De Pinna, in tandem with R. Hamilton Wright's quietly quirky Paul, and Bradford Farwell gets giggles as Ed, Essie's  pleasantly peculiar husband. Last but never least, another grand former Intiman artistic director, Elizabeth Huddle, charmingly cameos as the proud Duchess Olga Katrina, reduced (but unbowed) from Russian royalty to coffee shop waitress.

The vital "character" of the Sycamore dwelling is a masterful piece of scenic design by Michael Ganio, augmented by Mary Louise Geiger's impeccable lighting design and Frances Kenny's nifty costumes. Musical direction of underscoring and a few joyous bursts of actual vocalizing, is handled expertly by Michael Roth.

Even the most raved about modern comedies will never manage a shelf life half as long as You Can't Take It With You, and as long as productions as brimming with energy and charm as this one come along, I don't imagine we have seen the last of this funny valentine.

Photo: Chris Bennion

You Can't Take It With You Tuesdays-Sundays through Jan. 3 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $10-$59 (206-443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

A bona-fide holiday tradition, Seattle Men's Chorus' holiday concerts, led by long-time musical impresario, Artistic director Dennis Coleman, bounce back and forth between the lighthearted and the somber within each concert, and sometimes within an overall context of a particular season's show. This year the somber dominated, and this seemed a miscalculation, given how much we all need to be brought out of our inevitable depression over the new depression, and toast the future of a country now being led by a man who gives us all so many reasons to hope. Having gotten that off my chest, I can report that Fruitcake was still an evening well spent, and certainly in its first two performances, had an added bonus in the person of Broadway and recording luminary Jennifer Holliday.

Ms. Holliday's selections were not numerous, but were mostly well chosen. She led off with her only true Christmas song (and song with the SMC accompanying her), a somewhat ill-advised journey into Judy Garland territory with a rather mannered "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Then she took off and remained on sure footing throughout her numbers, from a tender, prayerful vocal of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday"  to her Dreamgirls second act opener "I Am Changing" and of course her "big" hit "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going." Holliday's vocals on all these songs were impressive, and she handled her banter with good humor and refreshing candor and honesty about herself. The crowd roared its approval of the Dreamgirls numbers. Still, another song or two with the SMC, perhaps her own favorite, "O Holy Night," would have been welcome.

The SMC sounds better and better each year, and never more evident than in the holiday concerts. They opened strongly with a quartet of wonderful and joyous selections: "Christmas Once More," "Deck the Halls," "Silver Bells" and "Over the River and Through the Woods."  Members of the Seattle Women's Chorus ensemble "Sensible Shoes" (SWC has its own holiday concerts this month) were a delightful guest addition to the evening, with a marvelously arranged "Variations on Jingle Bells."  The first act was capped off with an inspired musical acknowledgement of modern day audiences short attention spans, so a musical setting of Clement Moore's  "'Twas the Night before Christmas-Revisited" (music by Associate Artistic Director Eric Lane Barnes and David Maddux) changed musical styles approximately every 15 bars, to hilarious effect, and with ample opportunities for the guys to dress up holiday style.

The somber tone set in after another great comic number opened act two, in which a riff on "We Three Kings" featured three Elvis Presley impersonators representing young, vintage and fat Elvis, Stephen King, and even Burger King. Perhaps the loveliest of the contemplative numbers was "I Cannot Count the Stars," and Broadway fans were surely happy to hear the Maury Yeston "New Words," with a sincere solo by Richard Wooley.

The lengthy,  musically complex and tear-jerking commissioned composition "The Promise-A Christmas Miracle" about the vision of a WWII soldier and son appearing to a family one Christmas Eve just before his death in the war was too predictable and cloying for my taste, and more than anything, what weighed down the act, and even the traditional holiday sing-along felt less jolly this year than some past, though a statement in favor of gay marriage won resounding cheers. The next to closing "Stomp the Halls" and a giggly final number about a "Fruitcake" that kept making the rounds before returning to its original sender restored levity to an evening that had its heart in the right place, but really would have benefitted from more tickling of the funnybone.

Fruitcake has remaining performances (minus Holliday) at Benaroya Hall, Sunday, December 14 - 8 pm; Monday, December 15 - 8 pm; Sunday, December 21 - 8 pm; Monday, December 22 - 2 pm; Monday, December 22 - 8 pm. Outside of Seattle December 13 at the Temple Theater - 2:00 PM at 47 Saint Helens Ave. in Tacoma, WA. For more information go to www.flyinghouse.org/smc.



- David Edward Hughes



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