Review: Superb local leads in musical that includes seven brides, seven brothers, 54 ensemble members

Inspired by the 1954 movie with Howard Keel and Jane Powell, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” flopped on Broadway. True, it is tough for any musical to survive in New York without memorable songs, and “Bless your Beautiful Hide” did not win over theatergoers.

 

Ten years ago, however, director Gerald Dolter founded Lubbock Moonlight Musicals and discovered potential fun within the same thinly-written play. Considering strong new stars and a decade of theater improvements, one expected this summer’s Moonlight reprise of “Seven Brides…” to be engaging, or at least the equal of the prior staging.

It is neither.

Theatergoers are bound to admire the stars, though, even when not everything works.

This is another opportunity to witness the comfortable stage charisma of Marissa Hernandez, who accepts all challenges as Milly, the eldest brother’s bride, and anchors the show. Nine months ago, she thrilled audiences as Christine Daae in the Texas Tech Opera staging of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Audiences have another treat in store.

Dolter has an ear for great vocals and a tendency to help performers develop on stage. Hernandez, for example, ably uses her voice to breathe life into even silly material. Here, she quickly becomes the Milly most expected, delivering songs that entertain and an endearing performance.

Evan Dunn is equally well cast as 1850s mountain man Adam Pontipee. Dunn possesses a resounding, trained voice that promises more operatic roles, if that is his preferred destination. From the moment he deceives Milly, Adam is not a very likable stage hero. But Dunn’s character, while astounded by her inclination to refine the Pontipee clan, eventually reveals a believable love for the wife he chose.

The role demands no dramatic depth, but Dunn reveals Adam’s strengths and faults.

The story opens with Adam leaving his mountain home and heading into town, vowing to stay until he finds, and marries, a wife. All that seems to take just minutes. Weary of working as a waitress serving dozens of unkempt men, too many with roving hands, Milly takes to the idea of loving and working beside one good man.

However, Adam has disguised his own inconsiderate nature and purposely fails to inform Milly that she will be living with his six brothers, none of whom ever having been introduced to social skills. She is expected to cook and clean for all seven men, and the musical takes a necessary turn when Hernandez, as Milly, vows to be a wife but never a slave. The brothers are willing to exhibit a few social graces, even to the point of ditching their overalls and taking musical lessons about how to treat women. Milly is rooting for them to find wives of their own.

Unfortunately, Adam simply sings “Sobbin’ Women,” in effect advising younger brothers to each throw a blanket over a woman’s head and kidnap her. An avalanche can stop the women’s families, and suitors, from following until spring.

Missing from the current production is the barn-raising sequence, which finds the Pontipee brothers — having been coached by Milly and taken a liking to certain women — being sucker-punched or wounded by the women’s suitors in town. It is one of the play’s defining moments, making it clear who is friendly or deserving. Suitors now wind up lost within the ensemble.

The current production offers a harvest social and a forgettable “challenge dance.”

Despite the play’s length, scenes feel rushed, and the stage at times feels crowded. This is a dance-heavy show, but usually featuring title characters. The small town at the bottom of the mountain has grown with extraneous characters. The program’s “ensemble” includes 27 women, nine men and 18 children; that’s in addition to the play’s two dozen characters.

That’s nothing to brag about.

Dolter continues to inform audiences that Moonlight Musicals at the amphitheater should be considered “community theater,” where no child is turned away, while indoor Moonlight Broadway plays are more “professional.” The comment demeans “community theater,” and can sound like an excuse.

Diminished expectations have not been attached to all community theater in Lubbock for ages. Earlier Moonlight Musicals, even this summer, entertained in consistent fashion.

Elements of Marcos Antonio’s choreography are clever. Theo Spencer adds humor as Gideon, and Gideon clicks with Milly and Adam on the play’s finest song, “Love Never Goes Away.” Still, this presentation lacks a defining rhythm or pulse; songs ranging from “The Suitor’s Lament” to “Lonesome Polecat” carry no weight.

Care must be taken that changes do not allow potential problems in terms of needed space or blocking. Not to mention the possible loss of that spark, be it creativity or whimsy, that makes each musical special.

This particular play may lack dramatic complexities, but the cast cannot be faulted; in fact, the six actresses cast as future brides have often infectious fun with their roles.

Any recipe for a musical hit, however, calls for more than wise casting and great voices.

‘Seven for Seven’

* Attraction — Stage musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” based on the 1954 movie musical directed by Stanley Donen, being reprised by Lubbock Moonlight Musicals. The film was an adaptation of the Stephen Vincent Benet short story “The Sobbin’ Women,” based on the ancient Roman legend “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” Musical’s book is by Lawrence Kasha and David Landay. Music is by Gene de Paul, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn.

* When — 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and Aug. 25-26. Gates open at 7 p.m., with visitors allowed to bring their own picnic dinners.

* Where — Moonlight Musical Amphitheater in Mackenzie Park, 413 E. Broadway.

* Stage director — Gerald Dolter.

* Music diretor — Robert Rodgers.

* Choreography — Marcos Antonio.

* Stars — Marissa Hernandez and Evan Dunn costar as Milly and Adam Pontipee, respectively.

* Tickets — Seating in center Premium Sections $31 for general public, and $18 for children between ages 5 and 9. General admission seating in side Regular Sections $23 for general public, $15 for all students and $10 for children between ages 5 and 9. Children age 4 and younger admitted free.

* Outlets — Select-A-Seat outlets at Dollar Western Wear, Lubbock Memorial Civic Center, Ralph’s Records and Texas Tech Student Union’s ticket booth.

* Information — 770-2000.

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