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SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, richmond theatreIs forced abduction really a suitable subject for rollicking musical Theatre? That’s the difficult needle Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has to thread, and its combination of jaunty ditties, zany antics and sensational dance numbers very nearly distract from the darkness at its core.

Almost, but not quite. This is still a show that, in dramatising Stephen Vincent Benét’s story The Sobbin’ Women, loosely based on classical historian Plutarch’s account of the rape of the Sabine women, and adding big smiles and jazz hands, comes dangerously close to glamorising kidnap, assault and insidious misogyny.

The frankly silly story, set in 1850s Oregon, involves a group of brothers carrying women off to a remote ranch in order to avoid fierce competition in the town: this is a society where the fairer sex is scarce, and vital to building frontier societies. Milly, spirited wife of the eldest brother, intervenes and encourages the ruffians towards civilised courtship, while battling for control with her own husband, perennially crotchety Adam.

Book writers Lawrence Kasha and David Landay characterise the brothers as adorably clueless, the most gosh-darn likeable abductors you ever did meet, thus steering them away from calculated criminality. They also build winning romances between the seven couples, although that in itself is problematic, with its shades of ‘consensual’ rape. There’s really no way to square the gender politics with our more enlightened views, so the only solution is to ignore or laugh at as much of the plot as you can.

On the plus side, there’s a toe-tapping collection of songs from Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer, who contributed to the Oscar-winning 1954 MGM film, and Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, who added less indelible but still enjoyable numbers to the 1982 stage adaptation. The latter was a notable Broadway flop, but has since found success in regional productions.

This current touring show, which I saw at Richmond Theatre, benefits from the vision of director/choreographer Patti Colombo: her production is dynamically paced, ambitiously staged and slickly realised. The only flaw is Anna Louizos’s painted flats, which whiz around impressively but give it an amateur pantomime feel. The avalanche is a particular low point.

However, limited design budget didn’t hamper the original film, which was starved out due to MGM’s investment in Brigadoon. In both cases, the backdrop isn’t an issue when there is such a feast of movement before us. Renowned choreographer Michael Kidd was brought in to create a form bridging the gap between balletic movement and the primal ranchers, and the result rivals Jerome Robbins for astonishing innovation.

Colombo translates it brilliantly to stage, keeping the combination of balletic lines and footwork and incredible acrobatics, with a dash of wit. As the brothers face off against townsmen at a social dance, we’re treated to jaw-dropping lifts, fantastic partnering, energetic tricks and fearless prop work. Conflict builds through the movement, and Andy Rothwell’s fight choreography is similarly strong.

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, richmond theatreThe numbers are used shrewdly to advance the plot, mapping out transitions and developing character. ‘Wonderful Wonderful Day’ and ‘We Gotta Make It Through the Winter’ build cleverly, and only a couple of songs halt the action.

Of those, ‘Love Never Goes Away’ succeeds thanks to the crystal-clear soprano of Helena Blackman and puppy-dog sweetness of Jack Greaves, as Milly and youngest brother Gideon respectively. Blackman is a great asset, bringing warmth, resilience and comic vulnerability to the newlywed-turned-matriarch, coaching her lost boys with admirable patience.

Sadly, they’re hamstrung by the presence of soap stud Sam Attwater. Unlike the triple-threat performers around him, he has difficulty in most areas, from singing in key and dancing with commitment to convincing as either a virile rancher or, indeed, anyone acquainted with America.

The other brothers are teeming with charisma, and – for anyone mourning the loss of The Full Monty in the West End – have plenty of chances to display their ripped torsos. Sam Stones is particularly memorable as wild-eyed Frank, as is Ross Meagrow’s sincere Benjamin. They have great support from an animated company and live orchestra.

If you can set aside your concerns about its message, Seven Brides is a joyous show that ends in Arcadian bliss. If not, you’re subjected to anachronistic indoctrination and the sinister sight of a cult-like mass wedding. With yee-haws.

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Reviewed 30/04/13/

By Marianka Swain

Until 10th May 2014
Richmond Theatre, London, TW9.

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