Like Cole Porter’s High Society and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a film first and a stage musical only later. Its first outing on Broadway in 1982 closed after just five performances, but it is hard to imagine Rachel Kavanaugh’s new production for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre suffering such an ignominious fate. She enjoyed success at this venue in 2013 with The Sound of Music and now repeats the magic with a staging that is as dynamic as it is well crafted.
Peter McKintosh’s set consists of two barnlike skeleton structures, each of which possesses an inner section that can be pulled out to create a variety of areas. Set against the backdrop of trees, these prove to be excellent framing devices and are cleverly constructed so as to carry a wealth of details within them. Many of these come to the fore in ‘One Man’ in which Milly only has to move a few objects around and flip the odd panel in the wall to convert a pigsty of an abode into a sweet and dainty home.
Alistair David’s dance routines are highly accomplished, with the iconic ‘Harvest Social’ feeling just as substantial as in the film as the brothers compete with the locals to win the girls and perform all sorts of acrobatic feats on raised planks. The barn raising routine that follows is just a notch down on what has gone before, but it does face a tough task in revealing how the fight breaks out and who is to blame without the benefit of the close-ups that can be rendered with a camera.
‘Goin’ Courtin’’, on the other hand, portrays as convincingly as it ever possibly could, six men going from being untrained no-hopers to slick dancers in the space of a song. It does this by ensuring that as one pair gets its steps all wrong another moves slickly in the background, so that character is asserted while the overall sense of movement is retained. Within the routine the boys disappear one by one to reappear as clean-shaven, incredible movers. This act creates enough distance in our minds so that we do not dwell on what went before and thus judge how improbable the transformation really was. The Open Air Theatre is also used to excellent effect as brothers jump out of the real bushes, chases occur around the vast auditorium, and an avalanche is generated. The technology employed to render the latter may be basic, but the result is powerful.
Musical theatre is designed primarily to entertain and, given that it has to feel suitable for a balmy summer’s evening in the park, the need to keep this production light may be even greater than usual. As a result, it is made to feel just a little more comical and less sinister than the film. For example, during the kidnapping of the girls, several of them actually look eager to go, although such a directorial choice is not without its problems. It does not square with the stance the girls then adopt on the farm of entirely shutting the men out, and yet their initial hostility still does not feel strong enough for us to witness a total transformation in their feelings over the winter that follows.
Alex Gaumond proves highly dependable as Adam, but the standout performance comes from Laura Pitt-Pulford, whose sensitive expressions and graceful gestures highlight both Milly’s strength and loving nature. As is absolutely necessary in this venue, the singers and the band are amplified, and the quality of sound is in line with what we would expect from good musical theatre performers in the solos. It rises to another level, however, in the group numbers such as ‘Sobbin’ Women’ and ‘Lonesome Polecat’ where the harmonies are rendered extremely beautifully. This Seven Brides for Seven Brothers certainly makes for an enjoyable evening, but it is really marked out by the strength of the ensemble in both the singing and the dancing.