Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek's joyous musical about pioneer life on the prairie, Quilters, couldn't have been mistaken for a Broadway success when it closed in September 1984 after a run of just 24 performances. But like another musical that failed on the Great White Way, a short-lived endeavor based on Studs Terkel's Working, Newman and Damashek's homespun pastiche about the heartaches and triumphs of everyday folk has enjoyed remarkable success in America's regional theaters.
Originally produced in 1982 by the Denver Center Theatre Company (in another example of the DCTC's off-and-on commitment to developing new playwrights), Quilters is currently on stage at the Chautauqua Community House in Boulder in a radiant revival presented by the Actors Ensemble and the Chautauqua Association. Under the masterful direction of Lynn Nichols, a cast of seven exuberant actresses (all of whom portray multiple characters to the dulcet tones of a three-piece band) beautifully conveys what one character refers to as "the unspoken emotion and devotion of women's lives."
Clad in floor-length calico skirts and sporting wispy, pulled-back hairstyles of the sort worn by hardscrabble Dust Bowl dwellers (who would be immortalized a generation later by photographer Dorothea Lange), the seven actresses--Dawn Beck, Linda Button, Karen LaMoureaux, Fay Leigh, Ann Medaille, Melinda J. Scott and Kristin Williams--begin the play by marching down the stairs from a balcony that encircles the community house's great room. Amid audience members seated on three sides of the expansive wooden stage floor and on all sides of the balcony above, the distaff coterie recounts the adventures and travails of America's frontier women who toughed it out with their families on the unforgiving plains.
The playwrights have cleverly structured their musical as a series of vignettes, each of which is devoted to one of sixteen different quilting blocks that together make up a large "legacy" quilt. As each block is introduced to the audience, the performers enact scenes that correlate to that particular square's design. For instance, as one performer displays a block depicting four symmetrical cloth spirals, her colleagues lift up curved pieces of wood, simulating a covered wagon crossing the plains. Then, as they slowly walk into a formation that resembles a working windmill, the women harmonize poetic about the importance of husbanding the scarce resources of the land. Nowhere is Nichols's inventive approach to this larger-than-life sampler more effective than during a scene about a raging prairie fire; it's staged Kabuki-style, with flowing bolts of red cloth and scraps of yellow material. A scene later, the same cloth represents a post-fire flower bed that's been cultivated by the women as a means of coping with the disaster.
To be sure, few of the performers possess the sort of star-quality charisma or singing voices that are the lifeblood of a typical Broadway musical. Then again, the glorified lounge singing that passes for musical-theater acting these days isn't what's needed here. In fact, apart from a few rough transitions and static episodes, Nichols's talented ensemble manages to fully realize a deeper, down-home style of performing that's the perfect accompaniment to this unconventional saga.
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Leading the company is the versatile Williams, who in addition to serving as musical director, portrays a wide variety of characters with mesmerizing virtuosity. Whether she's pretending to be a mewling child, a swaggering cowboy or a distraught young mother, Williams imbues each of her delightful characters and charming songs with a simple elegance that's sometimes worthy of Meryl Streep--without Streep's requisite accents. Nearly equal to the task are Beck, LaMoureaux and Medaille, all of whom craft compelling portraits of younger women caught in the throes of adolescence, courtship and marriage. Character actresses Scott, Button and Leigh round out the ensemble, collectively exuding a salt-of-the-earth wisdom.
The result is a warmly humorous and poignant production that, as was likely true with the DCTC's original effort fourteen years ago, serves as a reminder that some musicals simply have no business being on Broadway.
Quilters, through June 28 at the Chautauqua Community House, 9th and Baseline Streets, Boulder, 449-3296.