Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The plot of the show is fairly basic. Sarah is reaching the end of her life so she has decided to create a "legacy" quilt that she will then pass down to her daughters. Each block of the quilt will represent a significant moment in either her or her daughters' lives, or the life of a friend or family member. Over the course of the musical the events and women behind the 16 blocks of Sarah's quilt will play out. From childhood to school, marriage, childbirth, and even deathall of these events will be sewn together to form Sarah's quilt and give us a cursory understanding of the good times and many bad times that these rustic women endured.
Based on the book "The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art" by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen, Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek have crafted a book with a series of vignettes that move us along the journey of these hardy women. Damashek also wrote the score, which has an emphasis on folk music. However, while the book is interesting, there is no linear tale and no character arcs to keep you engaged, since as soon as the story and woman behind one block of the quilt is finished the cast moves on to the next. Also, it's never clear which of the stories we see are the actual stories of Sarah's six "daughters," since everyone plays a variety of roleschildren, women and menand, other than Sarah, everyone else is simply listed as "daughter." On top of this, Damashek's score is slight and not very memorable. While the show isn't overly long, the always changing characters and overstuffed book starts to wear thin in the second act. However, Newman and Damashek are to be commended for focusing on some serious topics, such as death, adoption, and even the thought of abortion.
Fortunately, with the shows shortfalls, director/choreographer Noel Irick has not only found a superb cast to pull this material off but she has staged and choreographed the piece exceptionally. Her varied movement adds dimension to the songs and she achieves unique and diverse performances from each of the seven women in the cast. Robin Peterson's music direction and the vocal talents of the cast create some of the most luscious harmonies I've heard in years. Peter Hill's rock and wood set design brings a period rustic feel to the show, while Ross Collins' lighting is exquisite. Irick supplied the perfect period-appropriate costumes.
As the headstrong Sarah, Cynthia Elek has a huge dose of spunk and a sure-footed portrayal of this commanding woman. Colleen Corliss, Danielle Hale, Jennifer Harrington, Angela Kabasan, Larah Pawlowski, and Jennifer Whiting play the six daughters and each one is given the chance to shine and show off both her vocal and acting chops. A few highlights: Jennifer Harrington and Danielle Hale's lovely vocals combined with Irick's staging and imaginative choreography and the rest of the cast's harmonies on "The Windmill Song"; Jennifer Whiting's beautiful and touching version of "Quiltin' and Dreamin'," and the amazing vocal harmonies on "Never Grow Old." Also, the three-piece band led by Peterson provides some fun sound effects in a few key scenes. One in particular that uses the entire cast and highlights the creative elements is centered on a fire that spreads through the area and it is extremely well realized on the small stage.
While there are some shortcomings in the score and book there are many rewarding moments in Quilters, such as showing how life on the frontier was for these women and also sharing an appreciation of the quilting process. Highlighting the women's stories by the blocks in the quilt is a smart way to show us just how difficult, but also rewarding, these women's lives were. While you may not come away humming any of the songs, the stories, Irick's direction, and the characters and harmonies the talented Fountain Hills cast achieve are all stirring in their beauty.
Fountain Hills Theater's production of Quilters runs through March 27th, 2016, with performances at 11445 N. Saguaro Blvd. in Fountain Hills. Information on tickets can be found at www.fhtaz.org or by calling 480-837-9661.
Director/Choreographer/Costumer: Noel Irick