Come on down to Porthouse's production of Quilters
After a 15-month period when there was no live theater, save for some talking heads on the Internet, what is the best show to restart your theater-going life? Well, you could do worse than Quilters, opening Porthouse Theater's season on the Blossom Music Center campus. This warm and cozy musical will soothe your COVID-ravaged psyche with simple, pleasant songs and stories of women who helped settle the American West through constant work, birthing parades of rugrats, and stitching up quilts at a compulsive pace. Under the direction of Terri J. Kent who, given a chance, could turn your last Zoom call into a diverting entertainment, the all-female cast performs with verve and precision.
The idea behind the musical is that a woman's life is like a quilt—you get a lot of different pieces and it all depends how you put them together. Well, sure. This is the problem with easy similes, because you could also make the argument that life is like a lot of things. Is life like jar of mustard? Sure, it's hard to get it open and when you do it's either too bland or too spicy. Is life like a paper clip? Definitely, it's all about how you connect things, one with another.
Until somebody comes up with Paper Clip! The Musical, we can put our rant about similes aside and just enjoy a nice evening under the roof at Porthouse's cozy amphitheater. This show is divided into different quilt-like blocks that creators Molly Newman (book) and Barbara Damashek (music and lyrics) piece together to tell the tale of Sarah and her six daughters. Each block is based on a real quilting design (star, log cabin, windmill, etc.) which then inspires a particular story that is acted out and often sung by the cast. This structure has the benefit of being flexible, as the overall narrative can turn on a dime, but the drawback is that characters don't have the chance to be fully developed.
The one partial exception is the mother, well played at this performance by director Kent, who makes this frontier Earth mother tough on the outside but soft and loving on the inside. Indeed, love is the predominant mood throughout the play, even though Newman's book touches on a number of traumatic events including a child who freezes to death in the winter, a ferocious fire that incinerates their cabin along with all their quilts, many stillbirths, and other miscellaneous tribulations.
Still, aside from a couple mild sibling spats everyone gets along just jim-dandy with everyone else. All the sisters are eventually married, but there are no drunken or wayward husbands since all those unseen men are evidently too enamored of their wives' tight thread counts to be distracted by demon rum, harlots or other home-wrecking sins. This rose-colored look at women's lives on the rugged prairie can give you a sugar rush at times. But after the months of hell we've just been through, we are well aware there are worse things.
The daughters are played by six young women who are either students at or graduates of the Kent State University School of Theatre and Dance, and they all perform admirably. Since they are neither given specific character names in the program nor are credited as performing particular songs, blanket recognition is shared by all: Danielle Dorfman, Stella Fisher, Hannah Hensler, Israeljah Khi-Reign, Megan Polk and Alexis Wilson with Cameron Olin as swing. They combine their talents to make some of the more promising songs sparkle, such as the up-tempo "Thread the Needle," the lovely melody of "The Windmill Song," and the fierce, indomitable strains of "Dandelion" as the show comes to a close.
It must be noted that there are a couple exquisite staging moments—one involving the birth of a child enacted with intense, poetic dignity, and the other an amusing take on a Conestoga wagon with actors holding up hula hoops representing its swaying ribs as it rumbles along the trail. The quilts that are held up by the actors and displayed on the rear wall of the set, which are used to push the play forward, are pleasing to the eye. But most are designs on a flat sheet of fabric and don't display the comforting, puffy texture of a quilt with batting and backing.
The six-piece orchestra conducted by Jennifer Korecki gets the most out of Damashek's sometimes pedestrian tunes, and Ben Needham's scenic design is functional without being fussy.
Even though the material shows some mismatched rows and wavy borders, there's plenty of comfort to be had in the stories of these hardy women. And huge kudos to KSU for continuing to run Porthouse Theatre, which is celebrating its 20th season of excellent summer theater in Cuyahoga Falls.
Through July 3 at Porthouse Theatre, Blossom Music Center Campus, 3143 O'Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44223, 330-672-3884, kent.edu/porthouse