Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Seven Brides: American Musical Par Excellence

Pictures by Charr Crail

Anyone doubting that the American musical comedy is a living art form need only see the current Music Circus production of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” It will prove without question that our native genre is a rival to the best of Italian opera. Acting, song and dance are performed with the utmost precision, yet with so much heart that they’re irresistible. Opening night was such an exhilarating event that the entire audience rose at the end to offer a standing ovation.

The story’s American source is Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1928 short story “The Sobbin’ Women,” an Americanized version of the ancient Roman legend of the Sabine Women. Romulus, founder of Rome, wanted nubile maidens so his followers could procreate, thus populating the nation.

The Romans, unable to deal with the Sabines, abducted a sizable collection of females, who, when they learned the civilized laws of Rome, were happy to be captured. The event is most famously depicted in a 17th century painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Benet’s story inspired the 1945 film “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” which in turn led to the Broadway musical.

Set mainly on a mid-nineteenth century Oregon farm, the story recounts the travails of seven isolated brothers, deprived of female companionship, especially good cooking and clean clothes. Adam (Joseph Mahowald), the eldest, decides that wives would solve the brothers’ problems, with him as first in line. At a crude restaurant in town he spots a beautiful but overworked Millie (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan), who finds his abrupt proposal startling but irresistible.

After he marries her and brings her home, she’s quickly disillusioned with him and his six oafish brothers, who treat her like a work horse. She copes through passive resistance, mainly forcing him to sleep alone. Adam learns his lesson and becomes even more enamored of her. The next step for Millie is to teach etiquette to the young men so they can go courting in town.

In town the newly housebroken brothers dance with the local girls but meet resistance from their town rivals. To resolve matters Adam hits on a scheme to kidnap the girls, which the brothers accomplish one night and head back to the farm.

The second act brings the obstacles of approaching winter and, at Millie’s insistence, segregating the girls to protect their virtue, because the boys neglected to kidnap the town preacher. Adam outraged by Millie’s aggressive takeover, leaves the farm, to spend the winter in a wilderness cabin. Eventually, of course, everything is worked out to general satisfaction, especially when Adam becomes the proud father of a baby girl.

Despite the frank absurdity of the plot—why, for instance, would a half-dozen girls welcome being kidnapped?—the music and the singing, especially in duets by Mahowald and Donovan, captures powerful emotions. And the complex acrobatic dances, choreographed by Pepper Clyde, who returns to recapitulate the breathtaking routines she created for all previous productions of this show at Music Circus.

The venerable Leland Ball came out of retirement especially to direct the show, apparently inspiring inexhaustible and joyous energy in the cast, so as to justify the cliché that there was never a dull moment. Even the theater-in-the-round Wells Fargo stage contributed to the exquisite lightness of the atmosphere, as elements of a set descended and rose silently out of the ceiling.

“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” continues through August 9 at Sacramento’s Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H Street. Performances continue daily through Saturday at 8 p.m. and end Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $41 to $53, on sale at the theater, by phone at (916) 557-1999 or (800) 225-2277, or online at, where you can also find information about the season. For groups of 12 or more call (916) 557-1198.

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