The movie came out 50 years ago. The musical isn't nearly that up to date. MGM premiered Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, its big-screen musical extravaganza with all the dancing lumberjacks, back in 1954. Then came some unfortunate bra-burning episodes, but thank God by 1980 people had had the good sense to elect Ronald Reagan and put on pinstripes. The musical came out in 1982, starring, in the central role of Milly the alpha bride, Debby Boone. (Debby Boone! Can you say "feminist backlash"?)
This is the kind of show where, in the very first scene, the hero openly wonders if the storekeeper has "got an extra wife in stock."
Still, give 7B7B credit for trying to be hip: At least it makes at attempt to inoculate itself against charges of gender prejudice. Milly, we're told, is "as sassy as can be," and she simply laughs at Adam's initial proposal of marriage -- so far, so liberated. But then she just melts when she first gets a taste of the smelly backwoodsman's lips. The other girls urge caution, but poor Milly's already gone weak in the knees: "Too late," she sings, "I've already kissed him."
Once Milly realizes she's stuck doin' all the chores for seven little monsters, her plight is cast in terms of good ol' American gumption: "I won't be a quitter," she sings, as if her only option is to tote more barges and lift more bales.
But even though she's constrained by a hokey role, Kelly Kunkel is still the center of this production -- along with Michael Ericson's choreography. As Milly, Kunkel dances playfully with the brides in "Wonderful, Wonderful Day"; she belts out her determination to make this one-on-seven marriage work in "One Man"; and practically out of nowhere, late in the show she summons up maternal lovingkindness as she sings "Glad That You Were Born" to her newborn daughter.
Ericson's choreography doesn't match the leaping-flailing-ax-jumping exuberance of the movie, but it's still quite accomplished and fun to watch. Two brothers literally leapfrog over rival suitors to grab the brides' hands; the square dances have energy, and the waltzes have grace; the brothers insert some modern dance moves into "The Sobbin' Women"; balletic twirling enlivens the duets; brothers slide raucously across the stage, ending with their heads poking out from underneath the girls' petticoats; newlyweds run through a gauntlet of revelers' upraised arms.
As for the chorus members, Josh Heinig jumps further and kicks higher than any lumberjack who's ever learned a ballet move; Christopher Moll is so fluid and graceful in his dance duets with Amanda Lochmiller that he's almost too pretty for a boy from the backwoods of Oregon.
The highlight of Roger A. Welch's direction arrives late in Act One with "Love Never Goes Away" (later reprised as the show's finale): three people, each isolated in a spotlight, sharing the same melody but with distinct emotions. Adam (Noel Barbuto) feels confident that Milly won't leave him ("at heart, ev'ry girl's the same"); Kunkel's Milly is too passionate about Adam ever to leave him; Gideon (Ross Cornell) sings the lines out of a desperate hope that Alice (Melissa Fleck) will never leave him. The contrasts, simply staged, inject emotional energy into the sequence. In a comparable episode, Welch directs some nice counterpoint between the choruses of brothers and brides, first lamenting that "We've Got To Make It Through the Winter" and then, more quietly, to "hope for some lovin' in the spring."
Michael McGiveney, who designed the sets and the lights, deserves credit for creating a detailed cyc backdrop for the clumpin'-through-the-forest scenes along with a whole series of clapboard storefronts and rough-hewn interiors.
Noel Barbuto plays Adam, the eldest of the Pontipee brothers. (He's burly, he's hairy, he's a Pontipee.) Adam is the kind of guy who issues orders to the womenfolk -- and, when they disagree with him, stomps off to live by himself out in the woods. When he slithers back in the spring, he never demeans himself with anything so unmanly as an apology. No, in the land of lyricist Johnny Mercer, after a man does a woman wrong, all he has to do is 'fess up that he missed her so, and all's forgiven, let's smooch.
Barbuto is saddled with such hissable lines -- "a woman ought to know her place ... behind her man" -- that the only way out is to project a likable core under all that machismo. Yet Barbuto plays up the gruffness; we never really see what Milly sees in him.
The Act One finale has Adam exhorting his brothers to go out and grab those girls while the grabbin's good in a number called "Sobbin' Women." (The title of Stephen Vincent Benet's source story, of course, is a play on those carefree and fun-loving girls of Roman antiquity, the Sabine women.) Unfortunately, a flat ending to the number left much of the audience wondering if the first act had indeed ended. (It had.)
Another unresolved detail, at least at one point, involved the show's title. They thought about calling it Seven Grooms for Seven Sisters, but it'd just be wrong to suggest that men should be wrapped up like presents and delivered to wives they've scarcely even met. Men, after all, aren't defined by their marital status. They work outside the home. They've got more important things to do.