GARDEN CITY — I’ve heard many good things about the shows produced each summer at the Pickleville Playhouse on the shores of Bear Lake, but had never had the opportunity (or excuse) to make the long winding drive through the canyons to go see one. I’m sorry I waited so long. Had I known what a treat was in store for me and my family, I would have made the journey long before.
When we entered the large log cabin room, big band music was playing in the background, which felt a little incongruous for the show scheduled, but lent an energetic air. The audience was greeted by the cast members who acted as ushers and chatted briefly as they helped find seats and passed out programs, which gives a familiar family friendliness to the atmosphere. Pickleville Playhouse (or PVP, as they call themselves) is clearly a community favorite with a packed house and many repeat visitors, judging from the conversations around me. I waited with great anticipation for the show to begin. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was one of my all-time favorite movies growing up, and although I had never seen the stage version before, I was excited (and a little anxious) for the show to start. What if it wasn’t as wonderful as I remembered?
I needn’t have worried. From the very first notes of the very first song, it was clear this was an excellent production and I settled in to enjoy the show. Wyn Moreno set the bar high in his strong portrayal of the eldest Pontipee brother, Adam. Moreno has a rich, melodious voice and superb comic timing that draws the audience in and made me want to root for him from the beginning. His Adam and Whitney Davis’s Milly had instant chemistry on stage, which made their story arc strong and believable. I could see why Milly would leave her life in an Oregon town and strike out into marriage with a virtual stranger, why she would long for a family and home of her own, and why she would fight to save her new family when the consequences of her hasty choice grew sometimes difficult. Whitney Davis’s expressive vocals during “One Man” and “Love Never Goes Away” were poignant and beautiful, and “Glad That You Were Born” was haunting and heart-breaking. Moreno’s Adam was convincing as a handsome frontiersman who sweeps Milly off her feet and then is unsure of how to deal with his spunky new wife who has a mind of her own and isn’t afraid to call him on his arrogance and thoughtlessness. Their relationship provided a strong basis on which the rest of the show is built.
The other Pontipee Brothers were nicely distinct, and though there are many of them, I never had any trouble telling them apart. Caleb (Derek Davis) is the goofy one, Ephraim (Ryan Larsen) is the strongest dancer, Benjamin (Christopher Carter) is a gentle giant of a man, Frank (Joshua Durfey) is the brother with a short fuse, Daniel (Spencer Thomas Carter) was a strong quiet presence, and the youngest Gideon (Joseph Swain) was the sweetest baby brother with a gorgeous tenor voice. Indeed, Swain’s trio “Love Never Goes Away” with Adam and Milly was one of my favorite moments of the night.
Each of the brothers was well matched with an equally exceptional “bride.” All the girls were lovely singers and accomplished dancers, but some stand-out performers were Dorcus (Whitley Osborn Davis), Sarah (Taralee Larsen), and Alice (Makenzie Davis). But I could easily mention everyone by name. This was a solid group of accomplished performers who all worked with director Andrea Davis to create a coherent ensemble; there were no weak links among them.
The choreography by Sharli Davis King was fresh and clever, utilizing the small performance space excellently well. Favorite dance numbers included “Goin’ Courtin’,” wherein the brothers start out dancing only in blankets (my children were mesmerized by the possibility that one might slip!) and end fully dressed and ready to romance the town girls. “Sobbin’ Women” showcased the dancing skills and vocal chops of all the brothers, and “June Bride” was a lovely number for the girls. And of course the favorite “Hoedown/Competition” between the Pontipee Brothers and the town boys was entertaining and engaging. King worked magic with her limited space and cleverly double-cast cast members to fill out a whole town and communicate the tension and frustration between the two divergent groups of men vying for the same six girls.
T.J. Davis did an outstanding job in his music direction. All the harmonies were balanced and beautiful, and the voices complementary to each other. The only slightly negative note might be that the lyrics for “Spring, Spring, Spring” were hard to discern at times, and the minus track for “June Bride” was glaringly different than the rest of the show, sounding like it was produced on an electric keyboard, whereas the rest of the show sounded like a full orchestra. But all the actors were strong vocalists and sounded gorgeous together.
The set design by Tyler Stull and Ralph Cannon was very smart in its use of limited space. Beautifully painted backdrops rolled up and down, wagon units spun and moved to create new locations. I had no trouble remembering where the characters were; outside, inside, town, farm, barn, and bedroom were all distinctive. The costumes created by Lois Hugie, Mary Savage, Andrea Davis, and Erin Davis, were lovely and also helped establish the time frame of the storyline. The brothers were subtly matched to their “bride” in a manner that was not too obvious, but still helped me keep the couples straight. The single incongruous image was of Caleb dressed in black jeans, a white tank top undershirt and an untucked, unbuttoned red shirt, which looked very modern against the rest of the plaid flannels and more period- looking clothing of the others. One or two of the girls dresses appeared to be too tight, which was distracting only because they looked uncomfortable. But on the whole the costumes were beautiful and well-suited to the show. Ample twirly skirts and suspenders with breeches are a good match onstage!
Pickleville Playhouse has produced a production that lives up to the potential of Lawrence Kasha and David Landay‘s script and the work of the team of composers and lyricists (Gene de Paul, Al Kasha, and Joel Hirschhorn for music and Johnny Mercer, Al Kasha, and Joel Hirschhorn for lyrics) and that can delight audiences young and old. If you’ve never experienced their brand of live theatre before, get up to Bear Lake and hang on for the ride. It is well worth the trip, but call ahead for your tickets because the shows sell out.