Seven Brides For Seven Brothers
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
3 August 2015
The thing about a stage adaptation of a movie is that, in order for the theatrical form to be respected, the theatrical translation of the movie must work on its own terms. It can’t just rely upon the cachet of the big screen progenitor: it absolutely must stand on its own feet. This can be difficult.
It can get especially difficult if the Movie upon which the stage version is based did not rely upon plot and character for its Raison d’être. Where films rely upon spectacle, they rarely translate well to the stage. This is one reason why there has never been a stage version of The Poseidon Adventure.
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers was a huge hit for MGM in 1954. Sure, it starred Howard Keel and Jane Powell, but it’s major draw card was not its stars: it was the breath-taking dancing sequences, the most famous of which involved a barn-raising-and-falling testosterone-fuelled dance off/fight between the Pontipee Brothers and the male townsfolk.
Where a stage version of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers is not going to involve that draw card high point, it is going to have to find a new theatrical canvas on which to play. That can involve new songs, new plots, new characters, new dialogue, new or different emphases. This was partly the course adopted when, in 1978, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers was adapted for Broadway, but it was not wholly successful. Reviving that adaptation in 2015 requires rather more than it did in 1978.
This is recognised by both Timothy Sheader, who programmed the revival, and Rachel Kavanaugh, who directed it, as part of the 2015 season at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, where it is now playing. In the programme, they say:
“RK: However, we’re definitely not just putting the original on stage. For starters, we can’t. Seven Brides was a film before it was a stage musical, and theatre’s a completely different medium with completely different rules. Even if we could though, I’m not sure we’d want to. You want something to feel new and familiar at the same time.
TS: It’s about finding the truth in these musicals, which isn’t the same as making them seem real or naturalistic. The moment you start replicating or recreating something, that’s the moment they become deadly as theatre.”
Peter McKintosh’s clever design focusses on wood and trees, and provides an enticing vista for proceedings. You feel you are in the untamed American wilderness and you can just about smell the hay and feel the sound of axes being swung, trees being felled, and land being fenced. This is an excellent stage evocation of the places the Movie featured as painted backdrop locations. Real trees, and foliage in abundance, in the natural backdrop that is Regent’s Park, works marvellously.
Alistair David’s choreography is spirited, masculine and balletic, and performed with assiduous care by the talented cast. Most impressively, while the Pontipee Brothers dance as one, each has the opportunity and ability to stamp their own personality on the routines; moves and steps might be precisely synchronised, but attack and attitude can reflect the individual characteristics and quirks of the individual. Caleb may dance the same steps as Daniel or Gideon, but the three approach the steps entirely differently.
While there is a lot to admire about David’s choreography, it does not come close to the exuberant and showy heights of Michael Kidd’s work in the Movie. There are not enough impressive acrobatics or gymnastic tricks. Unfortunately, the Barn-raising sequence is foreshadowed, even announced and started, but it never really happens. The barn isn’t raised, and no climactic show-stopping sequence substitutes for it. This is a real failing in the evocation of what made the movie work.
It does not seem either beyond David’s clear skills or the male cast’s obvious abilities to have had a centrepiece showcase routine of some sort which effectively replaced the film’s famous barn-raising sequence. After all, it was Kidd’s choreography rather than the score and book, or even the stars, which made it a favourite. The omission is both surprising and curious. The result is that there is greater pressure put on book and score when neither is really apt for the burden.
The story is simple. Seven brothers live and work in the woods untouched by feminine guidance after the death of their mother. The eldest, Adam, goes to town and wins the heart of a strong, spirited woman, Milly. He doesn’t tell her about his brothers and when she encounters the unwashed, ungroomed, and untrained pack of them, she is horrified. Unsurprisingly. But she is a woman of her word and sets about reconstructing the brothers, not Adam, along lines which would make them acceptable in town.
Newly domesticated, Milly leads her family to town for a barn social, and each brother falls for a town girl. Through dance, the brothers take on the town men and seek to woo the town ladies. But it ends in a fight and the brothers go home, frustrated and annoyed. Adam then decides the boys should return to town and, partly imitating the Romans and the Sabine Women, steal their women away. Which they do. Despite this kidnapping, things turn out happily in the end.
The score is gentle and genial, but it really contains no show stoppers or ovation opportunities. Pleasant and hummable, but not really infectious, the tunes weave what magic they can under Gareth Valentine’s careful baton and ear. Valentine’s dance arrangements are terrific and vibrantly support the choreography.
The characters are all stock characters without much depth or complexity. In the film, the sheer personality of the stars overcame this one dimensional structure. Here, the utterly reliable Laura Pitt-Pulford brings strength, warmth and thoughtfulness to Milly – frankly, she outdoes Jane Powell by some distance. Her Milly is completely believable, a realistic contradiction of thoughts and deeds, and a woman unafraid to be driven (and bound) by her lust – for Adam and for life.
Vocally, Pitt-Pulford is a dream. Her pure, golden voice masters the music and her delivery is sensuous, wry and whole-hearted, depending on the requirements of the particular tube. Her work in “One Day”, “Goin’ Courtin'” and “Love Never Goes Away” is outstanding; she makes more of the songs than might be reasonably expected. Although there are accent issues (Milly is occasionally unaccountably Irish) this is a confidant and excellent central turn.
Pitt-Pulford’s success, however, sets a high benchmark, one to which, alas, Alex Gaumond’s Adam does not ascend. Physically he is right for Adam, but he is unable to hide his modern metrosexual sensibility sufficiently to permit the brawling, patriarchal, impossibly charismatic, rock-ape to emerge as he should. He is surprisingly reluctant to play the sexy flirt card, with the result that it is never quite clear what it is that Milly sees in him.
These days, the kind of rich, booming baritone voice that the original composer had in mind when penning “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” or “Sobbin’ Women” is not in vogue and rarely can be heard on a stage. Gaumond has a superb modern voice – bright, light and true; the kind of voice made de rigeur by roles such as Marius, Raoul, Enjolras, Chris, Link or any number of modern leading man roles. So while he sings every note well, there is a weight and colour missing from his tone which, if present, would make the music resonate as intended. He needs both more twinkle in his eye and more whiskey in his vocal sound to really make Adam come alive.
Uniformly, the Pontipee Brothers are well played, although some of the itching and scratching in the pre-Milly incarnations was excessive and trite. Sam O’Rourke shines as youngest brother, Gideon, blending awkwardness with optimism perfectly. Leon Cooke’s Daniel is superbly cheeky and Adam Rhys-Charles has a lot of fun as Frank who would rather not speak his real name. They all sing well too, and convince as ardent admirers of the women they pursue. The “Lonesome Polecat” number is a joy, as is “We Gotta Make It Through The Winter” which might as well be dubbed the “Hide My Erection” song here. The six actors make everything light and enjoyable, with excellent dancing to distract from the questionable sexual politics. Together with Gaumond, the seven are quite believable as kin.
Bethany Huckle (Alice) and Charlene Ford (Dorcas) make the most of their silly characters and are genuinely engaging. There is nice work too from Eammon Cox, Jacob Fisher and Peter Nash as rival suitors. The entire ensemble works hard and harmoniously and the sense of period and place is well portrayed.
This is light summer fare, pleasant and beguiling. Kavanaugh ensures the pace is crisp and interest levels are constantly high, and McKintosh’s costumes are colourful and twee. With a more cleverly considered central piece of flashy choreography and acrobatics, it could have been something really terrific.
Photos: Helen Maybanks