In 1850 Oregon, Adam Pontipee (a velvety-voiced Da’Von Moody) has come to town to trade some furs and look for a bride. We know he’s a romantic because his opening song is “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” and women love to be talked about like pelts. And we know he’s given his choice of a help-meet careful consideration because of such lines as “we ain’t met yet but I’m willing to bet you’re the gal for me,” which he sings at no one in particular at first until at one point he sings them to a mannequin, who, unfortunately, can’t cook.
We soon meet Milly Barns (Julia Link), a woman. She is whatever a waitress would have been called in the 1850s, working at a tavern and making her own living. Maybe even holding her own room at a boarding house. She also cooks, one of the “must haves” on Adam’s shopping list for a wife (though he is willing to “pay [her] way thru cookin’ school” because Adam understands what partnership is). Milly catches the discerning eye of Adam over a meaty bowl of stew, he courts her quickly, her friends almost say something but don’t, and before we know it Milly and Adam are husband and wife.
[In 1850, Oregon allowed unmarried women to own land. Just a neat bit of information that I wish Milly knew.]
What we, the audience, know – and what Milly’s friends know but fail to tell her – is that Adam has six brothers waiting for him back at his cabin. We know this because we’re watching Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (now playing through July 30th at Montgomery College’s Summer Dinner Theatre). The townspeople know this because I guess it’s likely that this isn’t Adam’s first time hunting for a woman around these parts. Why no one bothers to tell Milly – like, really bother to tell her; just a quick, “Mills, listen, I’m happy for you but there are six other brothers.”
Milly learns about each of the brothers soon enough once she and Adam arrive at his far-off mountain cabin. She’s been explicit, one would guess for miles, about how much she’s looking forward to only caring for one man now, rather than all the customers at her loud and rowdy restaurant at the tavern; a dream Adam never corrects. As each brother is revealed – Benjamin (Joe McAlonan), Caleb (Drew Looney), Daniel (Daniel Rosen), Ephraim (Chris Gleason), Frank (Declan Jeffries), and Gideon (David Singleton) – we can read the bewilderment and betrayal on Milly’s face. Milly is now 12 miles from the town where she’d had a successful career and is legally the property of her husband who, remember, has tricked her into marrying him and, in a sense, his six other brothers. I cannot stress this enough.
With little chance of success on her own in the wilderness, and no easy access to the remedy of divorce, Milly decides to remain with her captors and teach them things like sometimes your underwear needs washing, and how to dance. (This is all set to the song “I Married Seven Brothers” with a sample lyric being “Didn’t marry seven brothers/didn’t marry seven brothers” and “I walked into love and I took a blow.” Link gets at some of the baffled horror in all of this in her expressive singing.) Some of this is practical from Milly’s point of view: she doesn’t want to live in a house that smells like a ferret farm. And some of it is tinged with a darker hue: she doesn’t want to be the only woman in a house of seven men, so she helps the brothers in their pursuit of wives.
Milly’s plan is to take her now-domesticated brothers-in-law to a town dance in order to meet and fall in love with six other ladies. (“Goin’ Courtin’.” Sample lyric: “Oh, it’s fun to hunt and shoot a gun,/Or to catch a rabbit on the run/But you’ll find it’s twice as sportin’ goin’ courtin’.”) She’s an old hand at matchmaking now, having been romantically duped by her own husband into a marriage that is more servitude than one of true minds. Milly, Adam, and the brothers head to a square dance/barn raising for an exhilarating time of astonishing dancing (Robert Mintz’s choreography is electric and energetic, filling the stage with twirling skirts and high kicks) before trying to steal several girls away from their current boyfriends. When that doesn’t work (none seem as ready to fall in love as Milly was, I guess, who agreed to and was married off in literally three minutes), and after an altercation on the dance floor between townsmen and the Pontipee Boys (with more of Mintz’s jaw-dropping choreography), the boys sulk home and whine.
But not for long. Soon, Adam helps the boys develop a plan: they’ll just kidnap the girls they liked from the dance, grab a parson on the way home, and there you go! Marriage! Adam’s scheme is based on an incident in the Roman historian Plutarch’s Lives, commonly referred to as “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” where rape, in this case, doesn’t mean rape, but instead means abduction.
So one night, equipped with a wagon and a murky sense of ethics, the boys kidnap six women – Alice (Morgan Kelleher), Dorcas (Emma Cooley), Ruth (Bethel Elias), Liza (Sarah Joyce), Martha (Christina Jordan), and Sarah (Brina Rosen) – and abscond with them back into the mountains. This gets a lot of audience laughter like when a mother is talking to her daughter and then turns around and her daughter is gone. Or when two women sit on what they think are rocks (but are really two of the seven brothers disguised as rocks).
Montgomery College’s Summer Dinner Theatre production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is breathtaking to look at and listen to. The cast’s voices blend together in gorgeous harmonies, or take center stage in applause-worthy solos. Elizabeth McFadden’s set is simple, spare, and wonderful to look at. It also wittily and economically suggests a bustling town square, a barn dance, and a remote mountain homestead. Set pieces spin and turn, expanding the visual and emotional horizon of the audience while giving the cast a solid foundation for their performances. And over it all is Lynn Joslin’s gorgeous lighting.
I really want to stress how unbelievably good this cast of strong performers are, directed by Evan Casey. McAlonan has several wonderful moments as Ben Pontipee; and Singleton’s Gideon may be the Pontipees’ best hope for some kind of moral center. (Gideon eventually sides with Adam on returning the six brides-to-be back to their homes.) Emma Cooley’s Dorcas is a comedic delight in a swirl of romantic enthusiasm and petticoats. The energy everyone brings to the dancing alone is almost worth the price of admission.
I get it. It’s a classic movie musical from 1954 and the golden age of Cinemascope entertainment where women weren’t allowed to apply for credit cards and black people were segregated from drinking fountains, restrooms, public pools, and basically all civil rights in America. What’s being lauded in this show – bearing with any number of indignities, being kidnapped as an avenue to love – aren’t lauded parts of our emotional and national conversation any longer; and it’s tough to see why they should be. If you loved Seven Brides for Seven Brothers from your past, most everything about it has been lovingly preserved and marvelously performed. And that’s the problem with this show: for it to have a chance of ethically existing in 2017, it needs serious consideration and updating. But honestly, there must be other, better stories for this level of talent. Some things are better left in our past.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers plays through July 30, 2017, at the Summer Dinner Theatre of Montgomery College performing at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center – 51 Mannakee Street, in Rockville, MD. Tickets are available at the door, or purchase them online.