Friday, June 8, 2007

Log cabin club

Seven Brides a'leapin' for their Seven Brothers.

Sexism and the musical comedy seem to be a match made in heaven - or maybe our genes, if not just our jeans. What else could explain the durability of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, an entertainment loosely based on the classical tale of the rape of the Sabine women? Of course said "rape" was really an abduction (at least in the legends transcribed by Livy and Plutarch), and the tale is, in its entirety, an epic of war surmounted by sex (the Romans and the Sabines were eventually brought to peace by the abducted women, who cottoned to their new husbands).

In Stephen Vincent Benét's "Sobbin' Women," however, and the movie musical drawn from it - which transpose the story from Rome to nineteenth-century Oregon - the emphasis is on how adorable the all-American abductors really are. Indeed, in the musical's latest transmogrification (from Hollywood to Broadway, and then to the regional theatres, generally shedding weaknesses along the way), the sexual aspects of the abduction have been completely reversed - it's the eponymous seven brothers, not their seven brides, who are objectified. Thus the social status quo is preserved, even as the sexual one is subverted (see Giambologna's sexual take on the story at left, and the musical's, via actor Karl Warden, at right). Indeed, in its latest incarnation, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers targets two of the North Shore's key audiences - gay men and Republican women; it's truly a log cabin musical in more ways than one.

But what the hay, as it were - you should see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers not for its dopey sexual politics, or even for its abductors' abs, but for its dancing, as it features some of the most stunning numbers ever seen in the backwoods of Beverly. The dancing was the movie's famous strength, too - Michael Kidd devised wildly athletic numbers for his seven hoofers, and many of its spirited sequences (directed by Stanley Donen in lurid "Ansocolor") remain classics. But the North Shore (and its co-producing theaters, the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey and Houston's Theatre Under the Stars) have not only picked up the movie's gauntlet, they've thrown it back in its flickering face: these seven brothers turn such setpieces as the "Challenge Dance" into something like an Olympic free floor routine, turning somersaults and backflips on a dime and tossing their frilled, beribboned fiancees into the air like so many nickels. Choreographer Patti Colombo and director Scott Schwartz have together worked a small miracle with their staging (which was originally designed for the proscenium houses of its co-producers) - Seven Brides doesn't just look tailored for the North Shore, it looks as if it was born there.

Not that the singin' is anything to sniff at. The movie's score, by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul, was as sturdy as the trees in the brothers' forest (which in the set design by Anita Louizos neatly retract into the ceiling), and the current version has retained a haunting ballad from the Broadway version, "Love Never Goes Away," by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn. And unlike in the recent Crazy for You, the North Shore's cast sports serious pipes as wells as gams; they put the songs over, and then some. In particular lead hunk Edward Watts (above left, with Michelle Dawson), brings to the role of elder brother Adam a lustrous high baritone that he can effortlessly power into tenor territory. As his unhappy Eve, Dawson brings less vocal panache to the proceedings, but supplies a bushel and a peck of spunk 'n sass n' feistiness, etc. I found the brothers' mooncalf antics a bit on the broad side, but I have to confess the broads in the audience ate up their shenanigans. Kudos also to the balletic aplomb of Travis Kelley, and the plaintive vocals of Christian Delcroix - the Sabine women would indeed have stopped their sobbin' with bros (and beaux) like these.

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