QUILTERS, THE MUSICAL about frontier women written by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, is still hugely popular with community theaters more than 15 years after its creation, and for good reason. It's got complex and at times quite beautiful music that combines sophisticated harmonies with folk-style arrangements; it taps into the still-vibrant tradition of an authentic American craft; and most importantly, it's just about the only all-woman, midsize-cast musical out there. Anyone who's ever tried to rope in a few men for some small-town theatricals will immediately understand the value of that last item.
Taproot Theater till October 9
The concept of the show is a mother presenting her daughters with a quilt that will act as a sort of memory tapestry of her life, from childhood through marriage and into old age, and theirs. Around this sweet but fundamentally undramatic idea are grouped a series of songs, vignettes, and stories about the joys and hardships of frontier life.
The first half of the show focuses on childhood and growing up, and unfortunately requires a cast of grown women to spend a lot of time gamboling about in artful imitation of children. The second half includes some darker material, such as an account of a prairie fire and an affecting history of the burden of pregnancies in the days before contraception. But even in these scenes, a fundamental conflict in character is still lacking; while dust storms may rage and sickness may come, you'd find darker and more complex characterizations in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book.
That this show succeeds as well as it does is due to a superior cast, the subtle and shrewd direction of Karen Lund, the playful choreography of Suzanne Ostersmith, and the masterful musical direction of Edd Key. The voices are great, there's plenty of color and motion, and the talents of—among others—Theresa Holmes (as the commanding yet humorous matriarch), Catherine Gaffney (who gets some of the funniest writing in the show and does great work with it), and Beth Amsbary (who manages both childlike roles and a schoolmarmish turn with equal facility) do a good job of overcoming the play's inherent weaknesses. Ultimately, though it may have its flaws as theater, this production of Quilters is a thoughtful homage to the hidden history of generations of resourceful and creative women.