Backwood bachelors: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Saturday 18th July 2015, matinée

Regents Park Open Air Theatre seems uniquely suited to staging a production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – whilst not exactly a match for the grandeur of the American West, the outdoor setting certainly helps, and the venue has made a name for itself with musical adaptations, most notably for us ‘Hello Dolly’ and Crazy for You.  Having booked our tickets, news that the cast was going to be lead by Laura Pitt-Pulford was just the cherry on top.

We can’t accuse the writers of being coy about the storyline – the show sets out its stall early on when backwoodsman Adam Pontipee strolls through the audience and onto the stage singing ‘Bless your beautiful hide’.  Yes, it’s a song about a woman, the woman he hopes to marry one day, wherever she may be, and it’s quite a long list of attributes he is looking for, mostly related to personal grooming and cooking ability.  He’s been waiting too long, he feels, and, popping into town to do some trading he decides to pick himself up a wife.  Miraculously, he finds Milly Bradon, who ticks all the boxes and is fed up of her thankless job as cook and waitress. She agrees to bypass the months of ‘courtin” and marry him on the spot.  Little does she know he has six brothers at home, but unfazed, she decides that the only way she is going to get some peace with her new husband is to find wives for them all.  It’s a bit like Jane Austen in reverse.

The musical is based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, ‘The Sobbin Women’, a pun on the famous ‘Sabine women’ who were abducted by the ancient Romans.  We were expecting to have to ignore the sexual politics and just sit back and enjoy the songs (original music by Gene de Paul, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, with later additions by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn), but we found ourselves enjoying the lighthearted satire as well.  The tone is managed perfectly by putting Milly firmly in the driving seat.  She might have married for love (and literally at first sight) but there is not much sentimentality about her. She realises she will need to take control and she is undaunted by the task.  Adam and his younger brothers on the other hand are big kids, more to be pitied than feared, and they are on a steep learning curve, never more than when Milly teaches them to dance in their long johns like a group of overgrown toddlers.

There isn’t too much time to reflect on the deeper meaning of the action, though, with a rip-roaring pace and impeccable comic timing, along with dance sequences which remind us what made the film so famous in the first place. It’s no mean task recreating those dance sequences live, and choreographer Alistair David and his spirited cast don’t hold back.

As Milly, Laura Pitt-Pulford is the lynch-pin of the show.  She is has a lot to do, and we can’t think of an actress and singer better suited to the task – she’s lovely enough to marry at first sight, feisty enough to become an instant matriarch in a lonely cabin in the mountains, and never loses her charm and lightness of touch as she steers these unreconstructed men through the rigours of ‘modern’ civilisation (or as their brother would have it, turns them into cissies).  We never fail to marvel at her singing voice, and the emotional range she brings to every song.  Here she has free rein to show off her abilities.

Alex Gaumond has the unenviable task of winning over the audience in spite of his caveman attitudes to gender roles – when his younger brothers urge to him behave he proclaims ‘I don’t have to – I already got me a wife!’ Of course, there is a decent man inside waiting to be discovered, and Gaumond does a great job of revealing the lovable rogue beneath the bluster, with fine vocals into the bargain.  The production has a massive cast, all of whom have their moments, so it would be a shame to miss anyone out.  So here we have the suddenly eligible and strangely balletic bachelors: Leon Cooke, Bob Harms, James Leece, Sam O’Rourke, Adam Rhys-Charles, Ed White; and their plucky wives: Rosanna Bates, Charlene Ford, Bethany Huckle, Frankie Jenna, Natasha Mould and Karli Vale.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has been through a few incarnations since the film version in 1954, and we have to say it scrubs up well. Director Rachel Kavanaugh and musical Director and superviser Stephen Ridley and Gareth Valentine have given it a no-nonsense production which perfectly showcases the talents of the whole cast.  Ironically though, although many new songs have been added over the years, it’s ‘Bless your Beautiful hide’ we came out humming.  And if you would like to hum along too, we were very pleased to see that there is a new CD available featuring the cast.

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