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'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers'
STAGE REVIEW

Brides, brothers, even the rivals get into old-fashioned hootenanny

BEVERLY -- Sometimes it's all about the dancing.

"Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" certainly isn't about deep thought, progressive gender politics, or plausible character development. It's the story, after all, of Adam, a rough mountain man in the 1850s Northwest who, after finding an instant bride and misreading her copy of Plutarch's "Lives" (!), stirs up his six brothers to kidnap six brides of their own.

Sensibly, director Scott Schwartz steers as clear as he can of the troublesome subcurrents in his high-energy, high-spirited production at North Shore Music Theatre. A co production with New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse and Houston's Theatre Under the Stars, the show skims lightly from song to dance, keeping our focus firmly on its greatest strengths: the fine singing of leads Michelle Dawson as Milly and Edward Watts as Adam, and the athletic, inventive choreography of Patti Colombo.

Dance is also what the 1954 movie version is best remembered for, and it's presumably what inspired an ill-fated 1982 Broadway adaptation. This show is a further revision, with songs drawn from the movie and from Broadway mixed in with a couple of new ones, "I Married Seven Brothers" and "Where Were You." Neither is brilliant, but then the original Johnny Mercer/Joel Hirschhorn numbers they replace weren't masterpieces, either.

But, oh, that dancing. Colombo deploys the brides, brothers, rival suitors, and disgruntled townsfolk with an expert eye for pattern and variety. The ensemble numbers combine the vigor and rustic beauty of square dancing with astonishing moments of gymnastic grace; the simpler duets sweep every couple into a light hearted swoon of romance.

What's impressive, too, is how the dancing advances the story. "Wonderful, Wonderful Day" moves us seamlessly from Adam's brusque courtship of Milly right through their wedding and into her first blooming recognition of love; "Goin' Courtin' " sets up Milly's tutelage of the uncouth brothers, then sends them all into town for a fateful meeting with their brides-to-be and the suitors who want to fight for them.

The showdown, naturally enough, takes place at a hoedown -- kind of a "West Sty Story" rumble. And here Colombo delivers a genuine show stopper, with the brothers leaping over ax handles and sending the women soaring free into the air, as the prissy suitors scatter in stiff-backed dismay. It's a tour de force, at once revealing character through movement, moving the plot along, and taking our breath away.

The second act, which has the brides and brothers trapped for the winter in their remote cabin but kept chastely apart by chaperone Milly, could use more of that kind of energy. Instead, our attention flags once Milly and Adam undergo a predictable rift, because the other couples are mostly interchangeable and so less interesting to watch.

Still, Dawson's Milly and Watts's Adam make up for that. Watts dominates the stage with a firm, strong baritone to match his chiseled chin, and Dawson gives Milly both sugar and spunk. For the rest, Christian Delcroix stands out as the mooncalf youngest brother, Gideon; his squeaky, giggling courtship of Alice (Sarah Marie Jenkins) is a comic delight.

Although the three presenting companies share an all-Equity cast and other resources, including costumer Jess Goldstein's panoply of buckskins and calicoes, Anna Louizos had to redesign the set for North Shore's theater in the round. She finds some nimble solutions: elegantly minimal tree trunks that turn out to be hollow fabric tubes, so they can crinkle up out of sight when the action moves into town, and a simple cloud of white smoke to evoke the avalanche that snows the lovebirds in.

"Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" will never be a profoundly moving experience. But in the right hands, as it is here, it is a hearty, old-fashioned hootenanny of a show.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

'Related'

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Musical with book by Lawrence Kasha and David Landay, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Al Kasha, and Joel Hirschhorn, and music by Gene de Paul, Al Kasha, and Hirschhorn

Directed by: Scott Schwartz. Choreography, Patti Colombo. Musical direction, Ed Goldschneider. Sets, Anna Louizos. Costumes, Jess Goldstein. Lights, Donald Holder. Sound, John A. Stone.

At: North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, through June 17. Tickets, $35-70. 978-232-7200 , nsmt.org

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