La Mirada Theatre is bringing a taste of the Pacific Northwest to SoCal with a revival of the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, opening Friday. Directed by Glenn Casale, with choreography by Patti Colombo, and adapted from the MGM musical film, Seven Brides tells the story of the charmingly “uncharming” Pontipee Brothers, a family of seven rugged boys living in a cabin in the backwoods of 1850s Oregon. When the eldest brother, Adam, returns to the family cabin with his new bride, Millie, it takes a woman’s touch to turn the family of diamonds-in-the-rough into potential husbands.
Stepping into the (respective) corset and flannel of Millie and Adam are musical theater favorites Beth Malone and Kevin Earley. This production reunites the two actors, who previously shared the stage eight years ago in Reprise’s brief concert production of A New Brain. These roles, however, are a first for them both.
Malone, who was last seen in 3-D Theatricals’ 9 to 5 and is known throughout the country as the tomboyish “Betty Jean” from the Wonderettes shows, has earned quite the reputation for herself as a belter and musical comedienne. So the offer to play Millie, which is traditionally thought of as an ingénue role, came as quite a shock.
“Well I am not really an ingénue,” she says, “but the way they are doing it is they are removing that adjective from the role. She’s a survivor who has been through a whole lot of hardship to get to the ‘curtain opens’ and you meet her. She is a tough kid who has got a lot of survival skills and a great sense of humor, and she is definitely going to be OK if she never gets married. Then she meets Adam and that is where the play begins and that is a great place to start. It was kind of intimidating, because when I first got the role I was like ‘they clearly got the wrong girl’. But Glenn has the knack for casting me in things that go against my type. It’s been a really fun rehearsal process to get my sensibilities and my strengths infused to a character that is a sort of iconic ingénue that is really not going to be an ingénue anymore.”
For Broadway veteran Kevin Earley (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Les Miserables, A Tale of Two Cities), this engagement is a welcome homecoming. Before relocating to New York, where he currently resides with his wife Julie Ann Emery, Earley spent six years in the LA theater scene, where he trod the boards of Pasadena Playhouse, Musical Theatre West, Kirk Douglas Theatre and many others.
Earley was in Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2011 world premiere of the Death Takes a Holiday musical, filling the leading role in a dramatic last-minute substitution on opening night, and he spent this past summer in PCPA Theaterfest’s production of Daddy Long Legs. Although he is no stranger to playing roles associated with Howard Keel (Earley played Frank Butler in Goodspeed’s 2010 Annie Get Your Gun), he says his rendition is not the Adam Pontipee from the film.
“It’s kind of the same thing Beth was saying. They are trying not to make things stereotypical. They are taking the toughness of the character — that I already have absolutely nothing of — and finding those colors of softness in Adam, so that he doesn’t become a stereotypical bad guy. It’s about finding that balance. A lot of the dialogue, the songs, and just the nature of the piece go in the direction of him being a mountain man and not exactly cordial. We are all trying to make sure that is not just the one note. He does have a heart, he just hasn’t found it yet.”
Though the exploration of these characters may be new ground, both Malone and Earley are adamant that the process of discovering them together has been joyful and the friendship and collaboration that they’ve shared in rehearsals will be reflected on the stage. “I am so grateful to have a leading man who is an actor first,” says Malone. “He has a killer voice too! But to have an acting partner who is so lovely and to have someone without a ceiling…Sometimes you have a guy who is decent and good and can show up and wear the costume, but there is a ceiling — there is only so much you can discuss — and this [relationship] is sort of limitless.”
“And with you, too!” Earley pipes in. “It has been great to go off in a corner with Beth and say ‘You know what? It worked better last time’ or ‘I think you started something you need to run with.’”
“Yes, it’s egoless,” Malone agrees. “It’s awesome, so cool.”
“Shows like this get directed off in a corner somewhere,” Earley theorizes.
“We are really directing it,” jokes Malone. “Glenn may think he is directing it, and he will take credit it for it, but we will know we did it.” They both laugh.
While the two leads are off in a corner bonding and being meta, Emmy-nominated choreographer Patti Colombo and her ensemble of dancing brides and brothers are sweating it out on the dance floor, working on the highly athletic and energized production numbers for which the original film is so famous. “You watch them and you go, “˜I have an easy job,’” remarks a very impressed Earley.
“This is the most intensely physical show I have been in,” adds Malone. “Not for me but to be around it. Every time you walk in that [rehearsal] room, it smells like a gym and everyone is drenched with sweat.”
According to Earley, the brothers have the immense burden of being triple threats. “They can sing, they are athletes, and they are all finding their unique characters. You have Frank who is the hothead, Caleb who is the horn dog, Gideon who is the little innocent, sensitive one. The hard thing with those roles is to find your way into your own specific character but then bang, have this energy together that you share as brothers and as one unit. So that’s really what they are exploring this week, to become individuals but still have that sense of growing up together on a mountain. I have three older brothers, so I know what that’s like.”
“Me too, I have four older brothers,” adds Malone.
In discussing the performance challenges inherent in this show, the conversation takes a broader turn toward the challenges of working in musical theater in Los Angeles and what Malone describes as “the losing equation” of the virtually non-paying 99-seat theater plan that is so prevalent in Los Angeles County. However, she notes, “somehow Tom McCoy [executive producer of McCoy Rigby Entertainment, which produces most of La Mirada’s musicals] has learned how to produce things really well [in a 1,251-seat venue] and make it a business. I don’t know how he does it, but he is one of the very few.”
Earley proposes that La Mirada’s and McCoy/Rigby’s business model of supplementing the main musicals season with a broader range of theatrical events, including the Upright Cabaret concert series, screenings of National Theatre Live, guest youth theater productions and guest speaker engagements (Shirley MacLaine will be appearing May 18) may be the reason for the success. “There are theaters in Chicago that do exactly the same thing — they’ll have a theater that also has ballrooms where they do concerts and other things.” La Mirada “brings a lot of things in…Somebody might come see this show and then see an advertisement for a concert and buy a ticket for that.” La Mirada is “diversifying its portfolio, in a sense. There are some theaters which have a decent subscriber series, but they have very few other events other than the fundraising that they do and I think they struggle more from show to show because they don’t have as much as a surplus and continuing income. Their future is a lot less certain.” La Mirada, on the other hand, “can pretty much guarantee, and Tom [McCoy] does tours once in a while.”
Of course, as the houses and production companies struggle to make ends meet, so do the actors, even ones working as frequently as Malone and Earley. “For the actor, it’s a struggle in Los Angeles,” Earley admits. “I was here for six years and I was one of the lucky ones, knock on wood, to be working as much as I did, but still it was barely enough to pay the rent and that was in the good times.”
By all accounts, Beth Malone has had a rather astounding year, working pretty much nonstop. But when all is said and done, the final tally is a rather rude awakening. “I will probably work 40 weeks this year,” she says. “I have been working contract-to-contract with a week or two between shows…and my income is probably going to be in the 30s this year. And I have never had a year like that. I always say no to things to stay available for commercials — that’s how I supplement my life — but this year I just decided to do a bunch of theater and keep my chops up. I couldn’t believe the math when I worked it out. I was thinking, ‘How much am I gonna make this year? I am working constantly, it’s gonna be great!”
“It’s just over minimum,” Earley points out. “Just over poverty level.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t believe it.” Malone continues. “I won’t be doing this again next year”¦but it’s been really, really fun.”
Earley also comments on the personal toll that a life in the theater circuit can take. “You have to make those personal choices as you go. For me, coming to Los Angeles was kind of a no-brainer because my wife is an actress as well, so she gets to come out here and do TV/film. But if this was playing in Dallas or somewhere else, I probably would not have taken it. As you get older and more set in your ways, it gets harder. I always say, ‘It’s money versus career versus the artistic endeavor, and it’s those three things that you have to weigh. Is it a good career move? Is it a new producer/new director/new piece? Is it something you really want to do at this level? Is it something artistically satisfying, is it a big role, is it a challenging role? Everyone in their career is different in where they land those three in terms of importance, but at a certain point everybody has them. For most struggling young actors who are in this show, like the non-Equity people, sometimes literally just being on the stage is enough. It’s not about the money, because they are not getting paid a lot, but they are just trying to break into the business.”
“It’s an investment,” Malone explains.
That’s not to say that the realities of the industry have made these two jaded or ungrateful for the opportunities that they have. According to Malone, it may be a job, but there really is no other job like it. “My partner was reading the script [for Seven Brides] and she was like ‘You have the best job, you have a fun job.’ It is a job. But then when you get here, you’re like ‘I am so lucky!’ If I have to have a job, if I am not independently wealthy, if I have to go somewhere and be accountable to someone, this is a really good job to have.”
Earley is quick to remind her, however, that the fun of the job also comes with that pesky little aspect of having to be judged in front of an audience. “This is awesome. Rehearsal is awesome and I get to be here and do this, and then at some point your brain goes ‘Oh yeah…we’re opening, and critics will be there, and your friends and strangers will be watching you.'”
“That’s when it becomes a little bit more like work,” Malone agrees, “when you start to become a bit of a perfectionist. If you do a lot of theater, then you kind of have this rigid sensibility where you think anything that isn’t fantastic sucks. I want it to be really interesting, authentic, unique, and hopefully change people’s perception and maybe surprise and enthrall them. I want nothing less, and that’s when you become a bit hard on yourself and those you work with.”
But, as Earley points out, at the end of the day, there is only so much that one can be responsible for, once the curtain rises and the show takes on a life of its own. “All you can do is tell the best story you possibly can.”
“I want them to fall in love with both of us,” remarks Malone. “That’s really what you always want, though. You want the audience to experience love. That’s what it is, it’s a really general word, but..it’s the best thing. That is why we are here, it’s about love.”
“Yeah, it’s about people from seemingly different worlds finding common ground and falling in love,” Earley agrees. “Ah, who are we kidding? It’s about a bunch of boys dancing around.”
Malone laughs. “There are a lot of boys with shirts off in this. The audience is going to experience all kinds of things!”
Whether it’s the romantic love between its two leads, the love of the theater and artistry, or the cast’s “beautiful hides” (to quote a lyric from the show), the actors hope Seven Brides for Seven Brothers will offer something for everyone.
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada, 90638. Opens tonight. Wed-Thu 7:30 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. Through May 5. Tickets: $20 – $70. www.lamiradatheatre.com. 562-944-9801 or 714-994-6310.Â
*All Seven Brides for Seven Brothers production photos by Michael Lamont.