Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Book by Lawrence Kasha and David S. Landay (based on The Sobbin' Women by Stephen Vincent Benet and the MGM Film); music by Gene de Paul (New Songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn) and lyrics by Johnny Mercer
Theatre Royal Haymarket
Set in Oregon in the 1850s, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers builds a charming but austere picture of life on the American Frontier for the early settlers. In the days when marriage was an economic, rather than a romantic, proposition, Adam (played by Dave Willetts) asks Milly (Shona Lindsay) to marry him within minutes of their meeting. Practical at heart and with few options open to her, Milly accepts. It isn't until she arrives at his remote cabin that she realises they won't be alone - Adam is the eldest of seven brothers, who have lived for many years without any female influence. Milly will be expected to cook, clean and launder for them all..
But she is made of sterner stuff and before long she concocts a plan to solve the problem. If she can tidy the boys up a bit so they aren't so unpalatable to female company, they can all find brides and will be taken off her hands. She is surprisingly successful at knocking them into shape and at the next social the boys find six willing women. But instead of the conventional courting that Milly advised, they kidnap the girls and take them back home, meaning to marry them. The girls' irate kinsfolk follow, but a fortuitous avalanche means that the girls are trapped with the brothers until the Spring thaw.
As tales go, it might seem a bit dated for today's market but it actually stands the test of time rather well. And if the play's overall message is never to underestimate the civilising influence of women, I'm not going to argue with that!
A catchy score with songs like 'Bless your Beautiful Hide' and the legendary 'Goin Courtin', with lyrics from Johnny Mercer (award-winning lyricist of 'Moon River' and 'Hooray for Hollywood') help raise it above the run-of-the-mill 50s musical. The cast (including Stewart Marshall, David Ball, Jessica Punch and Clare Louise Connolly) do their best to impart a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour. But it is the athletic dancing for which this show will be remembered. Adrian Allsopp's vibrant choreography demands remarkable agility from the brothers (led by Jay Webb who played Gideon) and they do not disappoint. The play easily stands aloft with the likes of West Side Story and A Chorus Line in its artistic demands.
The overall direction by Maurice Lane was slick and pacy as the scenes moved seamlessly into each other. He was assisted in this by Charles Camm's set design which was reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie, though I would like to have seen a bit more mess in the brothers' house for Milly to be horrified by when she first arrived. Thanks to the use of video graphics, creating the avalanche on stage is no longer the problem it once was and it added to the overall humour of the piece.
When the musical was revamped in the late 70s for the stage, some extra songs were added, presumably to tone down the frothiness and give it some edge. This sometimes works well (as in, for example, the current West End production of Mary Poppins) but in this version songs such as Adam's soliloquy 'Where were you?' didn't always gel with the old 50s numbers.
Costume Designer Natalie Cole opted for eye-catchingly pretty outfits in the case of the girls and garishly strong colours in the case of the brothers. Though there was little of the frontier realism about them, this was the right decision and they were in-keeping with the overall bright, up-beat tone of the show.
Willetts and Lindsay were engaging leads and their voices complemented each other perfectly. Lindsay had the easier job of playing a sympathetic yet gutsy heroine with a vulnerable heart. It's harder to like Adam, a man who thinks nothing of kidnapping women in order to marry them! However, Willetts managed to up the stakes in vulnerability on the birth of Adam's child and by the end we were desperate for a happy ending for the star-crossed couple.
This musical has just completed a nine month tour of the UK and makes a cheerful addition to the current plethora of shows on the West End. If you're a fan of the film you'll love it and if you're not you probably won't be reading this review!
Until 25th November
Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart