Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Book by Lawrence Kasha and David S Landay, music by Gene De Paul, lyrics by Johnny Mercer
Paul Nicholas, George Critchley, Peter Frosdick
Richmond Theatre, Surrey

Sam Attwater and Helena Blackman Credit: Helen Jones

The story of the abduction of the Sabine women by the Romans, as told by Livy and Plutarch, has not only inspired some great paintings by Poussin, Rubens, David and Picasso, it has also inspired an updated and much-loved film version directed by Stanley Donen and choreographed by Michael Kidd.

Stanley Donen, who was still under thirty, had already directed two of the greatest Hollywood musicals, On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain. The script is based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, which is set in the backwoods of Oregon in the 1850s.

Adam (Sam Attwater) decides he needs a wife and goes to town to pick one up without telling her he has six younger brothers, all slobs, and he expects her to look after them. His feisty bride (Helena Blackman) treats the lads in much the same way that Snow White treated the seven dwarfs.

Adam’s sexism may not amuse feminists without a sense of humour and today’s politically correct audiences; but his sexual attitudes have to be seen within the context of the times and the hardships of life in the backwoods.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers belongs to the western musical genre of Oklahoma! (1943 Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Calamity Jane (1953) and its success was due to Michael Kidd’s brilliant choreography, the Oscar-winning score by Gene De Paul and Johnny Mercer and the casting of the brothers with professional dancers. The songs include "Bless Your Beautiful Hide", "Sobbin’ Women" and "Goin’ Courtin’".

Sixty years on, the film is still worth seeing just for the witty vitality of Kidd‘s choreography and the acrobatic energy of the dancers, notably in the exhilarating barn-raising sequence, one of cinema’s great musical numbers, in which the brothers compete with the townsfolk for the girls. The rivalry is expressed entirely in dance and ends in a classic slapstick brawl in which the barn comes crashing down.

How can any stage production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers even begin to compete with this 1954 MGM film? The answer is it can’t. The original stage version in New York in 1982 closed after only five performances. The London production which followed a couple of years later lasted just five weeks.

There have been many revivals since in London at the Old Vic and Theatre Royal Haymarket and on regional tours. The present stage production, directed and choreographed by Patti Colombo, is the best I have seen.

It has to be accepted for what it is: a small-scale touring production aimed at family audiences. Sentimental, romantic, innocent and exuberant, the show has considerable charm and is infinitely preferable to such recent large-scale West End failures as Stephen Ward, From Here to Eternity and I Can’t Sing!.

Dancing remains the driving force. Michael Kidd and his dancers are a hard act to follow. But what Patti Colombo achieves within the cramped confines of the Richmond stage is amazing. She relies for her effects on cumulative and extended shorts bursts, occasionally acrobatic and physically challenging.

The production continues its tour at Regent Theatre, Stoke, for the week beginning May 5.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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