Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a joy from start to finish. With a great sense of fun and spectacle, an achingly talented and lovable 24-strong cast, and an impressive, sturdy and versatile design from Peter McKintosh – comprised of two massive barns with moveable floors nestled amongst the trees of Regent’s Park – it is one of the finest productions of a musical I have ever seen on stage.
But the absolute triumph is Alistair David’s choreography, which achieves the show-stopping dazzle that makes live musicals effervesce, while keeping the movements tied to the lives of the backwoodsmen and townsfolk in the way Michael Kidd’s original film choreography did so successfully. The whole show is untouchably precise and beautiful, technicolour-coded and sparkling smiles, while also being theatrical, inventive and live, with a couple of coup-de-open-air-theatres too good to spoil.
This production was my first introduction to the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers phenomenon, so I was hit hard not only by the sexual politics of the show, but the lightness with which they are treated. Having been warned that the show was ‘a wee bit rapey’, by a long-term fan, and wincing slightly at opening number “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” from eldest brother Adam (Alex Gaumond) – who is, it turns out, in search of a wife rather than a horse – I was then charmed by Laura Pitt-Pullford’s fantastic “spunky” Milly, who throws in her small-town life for the rugged Adam. Once Adam has revealed he’s one of seven, and expects her to drudge for the whole family, she understandably wants to shake things up. Unfortunately, she decides to do this by teaching Adam’s unreconstructed brothers to ape “courtin’”, and rustle themselves up some wives. But Milly’s sisterhood-failure pales in comparison to Adam’s suggestion that the boys (having been kicked out of town for fightin’) take a leaf out of Plutarch’s Lives, and inspired by The Rape of the Sabine Women, go and grab the girls. The first-half closer which relates this plot “Sobbin’ Women” is one of the most gleefully unpleasant things ever put to a tune that you can’t stop humming since “La Marseillaise”.
To be fair, the girls in question make very clear that they’re not averse to being kidnapped and Milly does respond to this with near-appropriate horror. But still, Rachel Kavanaugh’s exquisite production snuggles up with the terrifying and insistent misogyny of both book and lyrics, never condemning or fully excusing it. Rather the production smiles wanly, rolls eyes and dotes on the classic, like the six ‘brides’ that come to love the backwoods brothers who took them away from their hometown by force.
The production as a whole succeeds in making the town the real enemy of the brothers, making the shotgun wedding of the ending a triumph for all twelve young lovers, as well as Adam and Milly, finally reconciled. It’s a barn-raising and barn-storming musical. But it’s never going to be morally neutral to put “Sobbin’ Women” on stage. And the fact that we enjoy it so much, watching the struggle between a man and a woman in a brutal society multiplied by seven and mythologized in twirling petticoats, either says something terrifying about how disconnected satisfying stories can get from satisfying morality, or says that love is bigger than all that noise. You decide. While you’re deciding, there’s a dance-off to die for.