There's applause. And then, at musicals especially, there's applause. The first kind of applause is obligatory. We're conditioned to clap after songs and scenes regardless of whether they've touched us; it's the courteous thing to do. Then there's another kind of applause, a catharsis applause that erupts from the gut or the heart, some inner place that exclaims, "Wow! You guys are sensational!" That kind of applause is spontaneous; it's uncontrolled. And when 9,000 people applaud like that at the Muny, the thrilling sound rolls through the amphitheater like a force of nature.
We haven't heard much of that applause lately; this Muny season has been pretty tame. But in its final offering, the simplistic, dance-happy Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the Muny delivers its most fully realized production of the summer. There's nothing deep about this show, but it knows how to entertain. Midway through Act One, the robust Challenge Dance a spirited competition between townies and backwoodsmen electrifies the audience. At number's end, the ovation for the dazzling dancing ensemble brides, brothers and villagers alike was deservedly tumultuous.
When this stage adaptation of the 1954 movie musical debuted on Broadway in 1982, the critics made fast hash of it. There were lots of reasons for that. For one thing, the Broadway opening came at the end of a long road tour, and Big Apple critics didn't take to the notion that New York was just another stop on the tour. (The musical first played in Forest Park in 1978, four years before it reached New York.) Although that Broadway run lasted only five performances, the show remains popular everywhere else.
And for good reason: It's mindless fun. While the stage version cannot duplicate the movie verbatim, it does succeed in capturing the sprightliness of the original. Credit choreographer Pepper Clyde, who has pretty much made a career out of re-staging these energetic dances. In the classic "Lonesome Polecat," a four-minute song that was performed by the six brothers onscreen without a single cut, Clyde re-creates Michael Kidd's dazzling movie choreography. More than a half-century later, it's still exciting to see virile dancers slashing at the air with axes. Indeed, Kidd's inventive athleticism sets the evening's tone.
But despite the rip-snorting, cartwheeling vigor of the dances, onstage the story must be carried by the two principals. James Clow is a solid stand-in for Howard Keel. As Adam Pontipee, the rustic farmer who pretends to be searching for a wife when what he really wants is a housekeeper, Clow is redwood sturdy. It would be nice if he could reveal a little more of the empathy that made his Beast in last summer's Beauty and the Beast so touching, but he's fine.
As Milly, the unsuspecting bride who teaches her new brothers-in-law how to respect others as well as themselves, Kate Baldwin is more than fine. She concocts a performance of charm and apparent ease. It would seem that director Marc Bruni wisely never told Baldwin that this is lesser material, because her Milly is a three-dimensional woman who reveals yearnings and pride and fear. It's as if every moment Baldwin is onstage is the most important moment in the show. She's not here to outshine the dancers, but neither is she going to take a backseat to the fireworks. Baldwin fuses character with choreography in a remarkable manner that makes Seven Brides an evening that dances even when she's alone onstage.
This week's Muny playbill includes the annual show survey. What musicals do you want to see in 2007? Any number of the titles under consideration would be ideally served by Baldwin. I'll cast my votes right now. She'd make a formidable Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate or a lively Babe Williams in The Pajama Game. How about Peter Pan? Or even The Unsinkable Molly Brown? That too is lesser material, but in Baldwin's hands....
I wish it were next summer already.