Show Palace Dinner Theatre artistic director Matthew McGee and company manager Susan Haldeman had to scour the country from coast to coast and look at more than 1,000 audition tapes and performances to find Christopher Sanders, who plays Adam, the eldest son, in the theater's production of the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, playing matinees and evenings through Feb. 21.
All their work was worth it.
Sanders provides the linchpin for what is, arguably, the best-crafted production in the 13-year history of the Show Palace. His baritone is pure perfection, and his rendition of the blustery family patriarch can make even an avowed feminist (like me) fall in love with what is on the surface the quintessential male chauvinist. Sanders' Adam talks a tough talk, but his expressive (not but overly expressive) face — sometimes pensive, sometimes ironic — gives away that deep down he's an all right fellow who is just having a difficult time coming to terms with a marital arrangement he's never seen for himself — one based on love, respect and equality instead of fear and intimidation, like that of his late mom and dad.
But there's much more to this show than Sanders' wonderful performance.
Choreographers Chris and Shanna Sell created the most muscular, athletic and downright dangerous dance sequences ever seen on the Show Palace stage, and the 19 dancers who do them — most noticeably Patrick McGee, Timothy Ellis, John Henderson, Eric Hensley, Michael Hildebrandt and the gravity-defying David Tanciar — leave the audience gasping for breath.
Music director Michael Ursua's accompaniment might be recorded, but the genuine orchestral instruments in those recordings sound like live performers. What a difference from the tinny keyboard sound tracks used with most previous shows. And what a fitting accompaniment for the voices of Sanders and the beautiful Sarah Arikian, who plays Adam's bride, Milly.
Set in 1850s Oregon, Seven Brides is the story of seven isolated mountain men who decide they need wives. Adam goes first, quickly wooing and wedding Milly, who thinks she's headed for a cozy hideaway with her groom, only to learn she's also tied to his six unruly brothers.
She quickly tames them, but, in the doing, alienates Adam, who demands that a woman stand behind her man, not beside him.
It takes the brothers, a long winter and Milly's springtime surprise to turn Adam around. But even though the story is predictable (it's based on a historical event in ancient Rome), the players tell it in such an appealing way that every scene seems new and fresh.
Writers Lawrence Kasha and David Landay and lyricists Johnny Mercer, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn use every word in their dialogue and lyrics to further the story, meaning that there's not a single "down" moment in this fast-moving show. Every word advances the action, so that the 2 1/2 hours seem like a moment.
In his precurtain speech on opening night, McGee noted the Show Palace's upcoming 14th anniversary in October and opined that the company couldn't have done a difficult show like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers back when it started.
True enough, but I'd go further and say that the theater couldn't have done it until now, when it finally has the perfect production team in place — Ursua, the Sells, McGee, Haldeman, scenic designer/artist Tom Hansen (oh, those gorgeous backdrops), costumer Angela D. Hoerner and, of course, theater owners Nick and Sal Sessa willing to back it all.