Most of us musical theatre fans can pinpoint the moment we fell in love with the genre. Personally, that moment came when my grandparents introduced me to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the 1954 film musical starring Howard Keel and Jane Powell. I was entranced by everything about it, I loved the score, the songs and thought the story had a really special kind of charm and warmth that you don’t always find in today’s modern musicals.
Based on the short story The Sobbin’ Women by Steven Vincent Benet, the story follows Adam Pontipee, a backwoodsman who comes into town in search of a wife. He meets Milly, and despite only knowing each other a few hours, they are instantly attracted and decide to marry. On the way back to Adam’s farm in the mountains, Milly regales him with tales of her dreams to run her own home and care for just one man, but little does she know that Adam is the eldest of seven brothers, all of whom live under the same roof. Unnerved but determined, Milly takes Adam’s six brothers: Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frank & Gideon under her wing and resolves to turn them into gentlemen, whereupon they catch the eye of some of the town’s ladies. Adam eventually persuades his brothers to kidnap the girls so they can marry them, much to the fury of the townsfolk!
Given that this is my all-time favourite film musical, I regularly watch it to this day and remember longing to see it on stage and imagining how certain sequences might come to life. Well, this past August as part of my birthday celebrations, I had the honour of seeing the new revival of the show at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. From the minute I walked into the Park itself, my overwhelming reaction was how beautiful the space is, and why on earth had I left it so long to see a production there; it’s a wonderfully intimate space and as an awesome bonus, the space for me in my wheelchair is one of the best I’ve ever experienced!
I often get asked why this musical is among my favourites, as it’s considered quite old fashioned and sexist. I felt having a female director in Rachel Kavanaugh for this new revival was really refreshing, in that she didn’t shy away from the sexual politics but these are just part of the wider story; her direction radiates charm and warmth and she is able to bring out the heart of her characters and focus on their development. As someone who knows the film so well, I was excited to see some new sequences that the film didn’t have, and hear Al Kasha’s and Joel Hirschorn’s new songs. One of my favourites moments from the show is a scene where the brothers have made gifts for the girls and apologise to them for kidnapping them, so you really get a sense that they have to earn their love. Likewise, I felt that the girls are given a greater sense of personality than in the film, there’s a lovely sequence where they echo the We Gotta Make It Through the Winter song that the brothers have just sung, and tell Milly that they want to stay with them. During the kidnap was fun too: I particularly loved Benjamin going to get Dorcas (Charlene Ford), she is reading Little Red Riding Hood to her grandmother, spies Benjamin down below and wishes the big bad wolf would come to carry her off, and she goes quite willingly into his arms. Alice (Bethany Huckle) and Gideon (Sam O’ Rourke) also have some adorable moments. All this in mind, another favourite sequence of mine was Adam’s A Woman’s Got To Know Her Place, which he sings in the wake of bringing the girls back to the farm and being reprimanded by Milly, eventually he storms off to the trapping cabin to be alone.
On the face of it, the lyrics are really chauvinistic, but there’s also a sense of vulnerability and insecurity to Adam in that moment that made it impossible for me to dislike him. Adam has to learn that his actions have consequences, and eventually reconciles with Milly, and protects his brothers from the wrath of the townsfolk. Thus, in order to make that transformation convincing, you need an actor who can bring out the depth in Adam’s personality, here in the form of Alex Gaumond. I’ve said before that I think Alex is a marvellous actor, and I am in awe of how tremendously and wholeheartedly he throws himself into becoming the characters he plays; his portrayal of Adam was full of effortless and likeable charisma, passion and strength. I remember seeing Alex perform Adam’s opening number, Bless Your Beautiful Hide at his Singular Sensations concert back in June, and was smitten by his interpretation, and couldn’t wait to see him take on the role. From the minute he appeared amid the audience and started singing, I was utterly captivated by him; his voice suited this score like a glove. There were a few moments throughout the show where he walked past me while singing, and I spent the entire time praying he wouldn’t catch my eye otherwise he’d catch me grinning like the total, utter, smitten Cheshire Cat that I became whenever he appeared, then I’d have got the giggles, it wouldn’t have been wise!
Sobbin’ Women was another favourite sequence of mine, Adam and his brother’s plot to steal their brides, as Adam is inspired by Roman’s capture of the Sabine Women. There’s a moment towards the end of the song where Adam is sitting on a hay bale singing his line and he proceeds to point at each of his brothers respectively while they harmonise with him. In context, I knew I should be annoyed that these men were about to go into town, kidnap their women and essentially demand their love, but I wasn’t. These boys are incredibly naïve, and like Adam it’s an important part of their journey to learn to redeem themselves. I may have been smitten with all their smiles, too 😉
The thing I like about Seven Brides is that in the face of this dominant alpha male, you get an equally strong female lead character who is more than a match for her husband. Laura Pitt – Pulford was a delight as Milly, ever sassy with a hint of sweetness and a vocal that soared.
She and Alex were a wonderful pair and created one of the most endearing examples of onstage chemistry I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Usually I find the idea of love at first sight in musicals incredibly irritating, given that it’s not always as fleshed out as I’d like it to be. Here though, I understand why Milly would be totally swept along by Adam and loved watching Alex and Laura share the playful banter and feed off each other’s energy. More than that though, Adam and Milly don’t always get along; they sometimes fight and frustrate each other no end, and it was wonderful to see Alex and Laura also play that side of the relationship; I felt it was really honest and believable.
As a character, Milly also comes into her own when she interacts with Adam’s brothers, and there’s a particular scene I want to talk about here. Attempting to transform her motley crew of six rude, gruff mountain men into charming, gentlemanly brothers in law you’d be proud of, she decides to teach them how to properly approach women, and more importantly to dance, singing a song called Goin’ Courtin’. This has always been a favourite scene of mine from the original film, and one I was most anxious to see; and I loved everything about how it was staged. The brothers initially are completely reluctant to join in with Milly’s idea, but eventually she coaxes one of them into dancing with her, and they begin to come out of their shells. Before the final verse, each brother would disappear from view and reappear later all scrubbed up mightily well (if I do say so myself 😉 ) to give us some of the most amazing choreography I’ve ever seen (spins, jumps, even the occasional backflip!) in this scene and in the following Harvest Social where they have the Barn Raising I couldn’t take my eyes off any of them. Thus, Alistair David, I once again tip my hat to thee good sir, for once more demonstrating to me why I count you as one of my all time favourite choreographers, it’s always a sheer joy to watch your work.
Aside from being incredible dancers, James Leece (Benjamin), Ed White, (Caleb), Leon Cooke (Daniel), Bob Harms (Ephraim), Adam Rhys – Charles (Frank) and Sam O’Rourke (Gideon) were wonderful actors and singers; I loved how they were able to give each brother his own distinct personality; something you don’t see to a great extent in the film. These talented guys were all new faces for me, and I hope it won’t be my last chance to see them perform.
Likewise to the Brides: Charlene Ford (Dorcas), Karli Vale (Ruth), Rosanna Bates (Liza), Natasha Mould (Martha), Frankie Jenna (Sarah) and Bethany Huckle (Alice), they were all wonderful and I hope to see more of them in future.
The cast is completed by Peter Nash, Ryan Pidgen, Eamonn Cox, Dylan Mason, Phillip Marriott and Jacob Fisher as the Bride’s Suitors, and David Burrows, Annie Wensak, Steve Fortune, Angela M. Caeser and Trevor Michael Georges as the various townsfolk. They were an incredibly tight knit group and one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen recently; I loved that they had their own number to open the second act.
There’s something very special about attending theatre in the open air, and this production lends itself really well to the atmosphere, as the actors are able to ‘use’ and include you in their storytelling in a way that traditional theatre can’t replicate. I had the brothers and the girl’s other suitors running past me at various points, the brother’s enter from different points when Adam & Milly first come home, and when Adam first enters strolling through the crowd singing his opening number, it felt like he was catching the eyes of some of the ladies and singing to them. Peter Mckintosh’s clever design didn’t feel like a set; it felt like the cast were encouraged to think of the space as a playground: there were brother’s sitting on rooftops, entrances from all angles, even a very clever ‘avalanche’!
Of course, though it’s wonderful to be outside and it gave me a new appreciation for how theatre can be translated into a different space, the big risk at Regent’s Park is the weather, we were incredibly lucky in that the rain held off until interval, and it was such that the cast were able to finish the show despite the drizzle. I returned home that evening gutted on behalf of the company who weren’t able to give their amazing show its proper send off, but feeling very honoured to have seen it, and thankful to everyone involved for an afternoon that was a pure, unrefined joy from start to finish!