Ed Watts and Michelle Dawson
in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
(© Bruce Bennett)
Ed Watts and Michelle Dawson
in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
(© Bruce Bennett)
Sunday night's performance of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the Paper Mill Playhouse was no ordinary opening night. Upon entering the theater, ticket holders noticed that every staff member in sight was wearing a "Save Paper Mill" button; and before the start of the show, no less than three speeches were made discussing the theater's shaky finances and questionable future. (It was mentioned that there is now only enough money to run Seven Brides for about two more weeks. Whether it will finish its full run will depend on future donations and ticket sales.)

Moreover, the audience went so far as to give the cast a standing ovation in the middle of Act I, following the barn social dance sequence where the brothers outshine the male suitors from town who are also vying for the girls' affection. That was certainly unusual. But this thoroughly polished, first-rate production of an admittedly somewhat second-rate musical is the ideal show to play Paper Mill at this moment in its troubled history.

Scott Schwartz's revival arrives at Paper Mill, following extensive revisions to the show's script and score, as the middle stop of a three-stop regional tour. Patti Columbo's bright choreography recalls the energetic, vibrant dancing seen in many a 1950s musical comedy.

As the familiar story goes, alpha male Adam Pontipee (Edward Watts) convinces Milly (Michele Dawson), the prettiest girl in town, to marry him after courting her for about five minutes. He takes her back to Bear Country to tend not just to him but also to his six brothers. (Somehow, the fact that Adam lives with his brothers never came up in conversation during courting.) He later convinces the boys to sneak into town to steal wives for themselves.

The score of the 1954 MGM film musical of the same title is hardly in the same league as studio classics like Singin' in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis. Nonetheless, it showcases a fine set of Gene de Paul-Johnny Mercer songs, including "Wonderful, Wonderful Day," "Goin' Courtin'," "Sobbin' Women" and "Lonesome Polecat." All of these are far more captivating and pleasing to the ear than the new songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, which are this production's weakest link.

Dawson is a spunkier, less delicate Milly than Jane Powell in the film, while Watts bring to Adam the deep baritone voice and broad shoulders that we have come to expect since Howard Keel sang "Bless Your Beautiful Hide" to the mountain wind in Cinemascope. The other six brides and six brothers are zestful in song and dance, and nicely comical in their scenes of dialogue.

During intermission, one could hear numerous subscribers proclaiming that the show boasts the best production values of any Paper Mill production in the past few years. In stirring nostalgia for the good old days of elaborate revivals of musicals like Camelot and Carousel, Seven Brides could provide the necessary incentive for New Jersey -- and New York -- audiences to give Paper Mill another chance.