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Seven Brides for Seven Brothers-6th St.Playhouse-SantaRosa CA

From left: Clint Campbell, Jake Flatto, Trevor Hoffmann, Rebekah Patti

 Photos by Eric Chazankin

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
(Saturday, August 25, 2012 evening performance)

Disappointing Launch for 6th Street’s New Season

For its season kickoff last year, 6th Street Playhouse’s GK Hardt Theatre enjoyed a stunning triumph with “Kiss Me Kate”, and kept the momentum going with a string of standing-room only hits like “A Christmas Story”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “The Marvelous Wonderettes” and “The Producers”.  There were also a number of remarkable shows at 6th Street’s Studio Theatre. These successes raised the bar not only for local theatre overall, but for 6th Street itself.  Whether their newest production “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” can meet last season’s formidable challenge is far from certain.

As its 2012-2013 season opener, “Seven Brides” is a surprising choice for award-winning 6th Street Playhouse. This lavish MGM movie musical from 1954 was a great success, with stars like Howard Keel and Jane Powell, and an outstanding supporting cast. But the stage adaptation by Gene de Paul, Johnny Mercer, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn was not much of a crowd-pleaser when it first appeared on Broadway in 1982. Actually, it was a flop – it closed after only five performances, and didn’t do much better when it opened in London’s West End a few years later. It saw more success on tour in the U.S. and in revivals, but was never what you’d call a popular hit.

The story is simple and the premise is flimsy. In 1850 Oregon, rugged mountaineer Adam decides it’s time to get him a wife, so he descends from his remote mountain cabin into town. There he manages to charm the naïve but lovely Milly into marrying him, over the strong suspicions of the townsfolk. When she arrives back at the cabin with her bumptious hubby, she discovers they are not alone. His six uncouth, unwashed and unmarried brothers are living there with him. When these wild boys get the idea they’d like to be married too, they end up kidnapping six girls from town. All heck breaks loose, with a happy ending guaranteed. But the show at 6th Street has problems.

To begin with, there’s the casting. While they do have good singing voices, it’s an understatement to say that most of the brothers do not look like outdoorsy types. It’s hard to believe these guys are supposed to be rough-hewn mountain men – felling trees, splitting logs and killing grizzlies with their bare hands. They’d look much more at home on the sofa, munching pizza and watching TV. Case in point: one especially embarrassing number has all six of Adam’s brothers surrendering their underwear to Milly for washing, and they end up doing a lively dance together shirtless, not a pretty sight. This is where unfortunate casting choices are painfully apparent. Some of the brothers display a little too much bouncing flesh in the process. If this is supposed to be funny, it doesn’t work.

In all fairness, there are a few standouts among the brothers: the acrobatic Trevor Hoffman as Benjamin, and Clint Campbell (so compelling as Brick in last season’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) as Caleb, not only look their parts but are also convincing as powerful, independent guys that still long for love and acceptance. Probably the best of the boys is Joey Abrego as the youngest brother Gideon. He shows both strength and sensitivity, and has a truly wonderful voice. It’s easy to see how a young lady might find him appealing and sympathetic.

As for the brides, there were some really good performances by Kate Kitchens as Alice, and Vanessa Bautista as Martha. And even though she plays a supporting role in this show, the delightful April Krautner as Dorcas steals every scene she’s in. She’s always funny and charming in her leading roles (witness last season’s “The 39 Steps” and “The Producers”), and she’s also tops at singing and dancing.

Rebekah Patti, Ben Knoll

Ben Knoll as Adam needs to be bold and daring – a force of nature – but instead comes off as just an ordinary, likeable guy. Despite having a pleasant enough singing voice and demeanor, he lacks the rugged physicality of a man who takes long hikes in the mountains, a quality needed in this role to make it effective and believable. The excellent Rebekah Patti as Milly carries the show as best she can with her beautiful voice and engaging stage presence, with the help of just a few good supporting cast members playing townsfolk. Alan Kafton as the Preacher and Laura Davis as Mrs Hoallum are a pleasure to watch whenever they happen onto the stage. The chorus offers good, strong harmonies offset by only occasional pitch problems.

Fledgling director Patrick Varner’s staging is inconsistent. The fight scenes are a bit awkward and some of the group scenes are disorganized, like traffic jams onstage. There are some impressive bits of acrobatics and tumbling, and some good dance numbers (by choreographer Alexandra Cummins). The best part of the show: a brief, inspired shadow-puppet chase sequence that includes some creative wagon wheel-rolling and pantomime, involving nearly the entire cast. But with only a few bright spots like these, the end results are less than uneven. Set design by Vincent Mothersbaugh and costumes by Erika Hauptman are merely acceptable, but the 10-piece orchestra more than holds its own under the always capable direction of Janis Dunson Wilson.

To support such a lightweight musical show and bring it across to the audience, you need the assurance of blazing triple-threat performers combined with excellent casting, directing, set design and choreography. Without the help of this talent, a weak story stays weak, and just limps along. “Seven Brides” at 6th Street could use a crutch, maybe two.

When:  Now through September 16, 2012
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
2 p.m. Sundays
2 p.m. Saturday September 15
Tickets:  $15 to $35
Location:  6th Street Playhouse – GK Hardt Theatre, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA
Phone:  707-523-4185

Website:  www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

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