A Moving 'Quilters'

Theater Review

Musical At Annapolis Celebrates American Pioneer Womanhood

July 12, 2009|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Last weekend, Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre opened Quilters: The Musical, which celebrates American womanhood as told through the experiences of 19th-century pioneer women.

In the current issue of Applause, co-author and composer/lyricist Barbara Damashek describes Quilters "as a theatrical event of the early 1980s, a piece of oral history and feminist musical theater. ... It was one of the earlier explorations in the '80s of the use of oral history and monology as the source for plays."

Inspired by a project organized by the Smithsonian Institution, Quilters premiered on Broadway in 1984. Despite a run of only 24 performances and mixed reviews, it was nominated for six Tony Awards, including best musical, best book and best score.

The story centers on elderly Sarah, who wants to complete a legacy quilt with her six daughters. Each quilt block tells a story: Woven together are childhood school days, courtship, marriage, childbirth, home building, bitter cold, fires and other natural disasters, and death.

Usually married by age 16, pioneer women typically had from 10 to 15 children, sometimes at risk to their health, while also enduring severe hardships. Quilting provided an opportunity to socialize while making something necessary for survival in harsh winters. Quilts also became 19th-century scrapbooks recording major events. The connecting mechanism requires actors to deliver monologues that can vividly create dramatic intensity and represent unseen characters.

Humor was essential to these women, as illustrated in several amusing segments. One deals with several girls' affection for 20-year-old James Earl Prentice, who seems to have promised each a future with him. In "Schoolhouse" a spunky daughter brightly played by Meghan Taylor rails against studying geography. Later, Taylor rants against the art of quilting, especially Sunbonnet Sue patterns - something her sister excels at annoyingly.

Another standout is Josette Dubois, who conveys her character's love for her husband, for whom she created a birthday quilt recognizing his railroad career accomplishments. When she learns of his death in a terrible accident, Dubois summons towering grief and love as she prepares to use the quilt for his shroud.

Heidi Toll as Sarah guides the story, playing a strong mother who cherishes the family memories stitched in this final quilt. Toll's Sarah is steadfast in her strength, courage and unwavering love for her daughters.

Women dominate Summer Garden's production staff, which includes director/choreographer Marie Sprout making a noteworthy ASGT debut; music director Rachel Sitomer, also making a strong ASGT debut; stage manager Maureen Rogers, another ASGT debuting talent; and ASGT veteran costumer Nikki Gerbasi, who adds visual authenticity to every costume.

The production is enhanced by Eric Sprout's excellent set and lighting design. Onstage musicians are conductor/pianist Ken Kimble, Ahren Buchheister on guitar and mandolin and Elizabeth Kimble on violin and flute.

On opening night, there were several slow transitions and a few marked recitations of lines that diminished authenticity. Both presumably will improve in future performances. But there was no single instance of vocal lack in solo or in choral harmony. Musically, this show is superb from start to finish.

If you go

Performances of "Quilters: The Musical" are 8:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, through July 26. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students, seniors and groups of 20 and can be reserved by calling the box office at 410-268-9212. Children older than 5 are welcome. Tickets must be picked up by 8 p.m. the evening of the performance and must be paid for by cash or check. For more information, go to summergarden.com

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