UA REPERTORY'S QUILTERS, an All-American celebration of pioneer womanhood, is either vaguely insipid or boldly inspirational, depending on your perspective. The heartfelt musical, generally well-staged and very enthusiastically performed, was initially presented this past June. It's being remounted to open the Arizona Repertory Theatre 1999-2000 season. The content of Quilters is a litmus test of cynicism. Its broad strokes of hardship and self-congratulation will leave captious audience members cold. However, families (especially mother-daughter dyads out for a night of bonding), sensitive New Age guys and other empathic individuals will be holding hands and passing the Kleenex within the first 30 minutes.
Written by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek with music and lyrics also by Damashek, Quilters is loosely based on the book The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art, by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen. The musical won the First Award in the 1983 Edinburgh World Theatre Festival. It received six Tony nominations in 1985, including Best Book and Best Musical. This production is directed and choreographed by Richard T. Hanson, an associate professor in theatre arts, whose other presentations for UA include Grease, South Pacific, Cabaret and Chicago. Nancy Davis Booth is musical director.
Quilters opens with a rustic Coplandesque overture from the five-piece band and segues into the opening number, "Pieces of Lives," a song reprised several times during the show. Through direct address to the audience, the play is set up using the metaphor of quilting to look at the meager legacy women had available to pass on in pioneer days. Transitions are marked by explanations of quilting techniques, the structure of various types of patches, the materials and where they came from, and how a quilt became a mnemonic device over the course of a life, as the pieces were used, disassembled, used again and handed down. The quilting explanations feature some stunning projected examples of actual quilts, and are detailed enough to serve as a primer on the art.
The storyline takes us through various hardships faced by Sarah and her six daughters, as well as other women of the era: freezing winters in crude earthen dugouts; droughts followed by prairie fires; constructing log cabins, etc. Against this backdrop we follow a life cycle: birth, first menstruation, marriage, childbirth and old age.
The cast is a multi-generational mix of undergraduates and UA alumni. Of the latter, we have Jeanne Pollard, Betty Craig and Brooke Davis, all familiar from various local productions. The students include Amy Bowman, Kimberly Goldman, Traci Hartley and Marlene Cristina Montes. Although everyone did a perfectly credible job with both the singing and choreography, Davis and Bowman were particularly entrancing and exuberant in their performances.
Unfortunately, the work has several weaknesses. Structurally, we're given generalized vignettes that fail to penetrate deep enough into any of the characters, leaving a sense of distance and a lack of identity. In spite of some elements being overwrought and maudlin (one winter sequence and the death of one woman's husband, for example), there's no dramatic surge to lead up to the intermission. It feels like an unwanted break in the story; and the ending, similarly, feels like we've simply run out of time rather than reached a conclusion.
In the staging, neither of the big disaster segments -- the freezing winter or the prairie fire -- which are supposed to engage us with a sense of the terror faced by these women, ever rings true. The fire in particular is more symbolic than menacing, with its waving cloths and red lighting. The more personal, character-driven sequences, such as the side story of Lizzie, who goes insane after giving up her illegitimate child, scored stronger emotional responses.
On the plus side, Hanson's choreography is consistently enjoyable and well-executed. The singing was also a joy, with tight ensemble work, well-rehearsed harmonies and strong solos. The show's 19 musical numbers are mostly folk-flavored. They cover a lot of territory, from the Caribbean-tinged "Cornelia" to the Eastern European-influenced "Dandelion," although "Pieces of Lives" sounded more Broadway than backwoods. The very enjoyable band, dressed in costume and located to the side of the stage, includes guitar, upright bass, mandolin, violin and synthesizer. Lighting designer Jeffrey L. Warburton's use of strong, primary colors enhances the plain-spoken mood considerably.
Quilters is best viewed by audiences who won't be put off by its homespun homilies and hardscrabble story. It's a fine show for families of all ages, but particularly those looking to introduce their kids to musical theatre, and for anyone with an interest in the art form of quilting. Staged well but without dazzle, this is an earnest program that's unlikely to play well for those who aren't in sync with its heavy-handed plot. Others may be turned off by a brand of feminism filtered through fundamental Protestant values. It's a good show, if you agree with the message; but even the strong performances will not carry it to favor among patrons who may not find it sufficiently contemporary or adequately structured.