Theater review by Misha Berson: "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" at the 5th Avenue Theatre displays vigorous, energetic dancing and fine singing from the leads in a staging of the classic Northwest-set film; playing Dec. 3-28, 2008.

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Next to fightin’ and wooin,’ rustic pioneer brothers in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” like dancin’ best.

And their exhilarating footwork is a huge plus in this vigorous new 5th Avenue Theatre production of the musical. The brides and brothers dance up a fury in this comic yarn set in the wild, woolly Pacific Northwest of yore.

Leaping and twirling, stomping and soaring, the attractive and capable 5th Avenue cast whips through Patti Colombo’s mating-ritual dance numbers with athletic aplomb.

Brawn and ballet go hand in hand in the vivacious treatment of a locally beloved tale with a lightly feminist undertone, underscored here by the 5th Avenue’s all-female creative team — Colombo, director Allison Narver and musical director-conductor Valerie Gebert.

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High-kicking exuberance is a must for any spinoff of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” which started out as a classic MGM movie musical and also spun off a short-lived TV series.

The 1954 film is set in the Oregon Territory in the 1850s, which then included chunks of forested land that would later become part of Idaho and Washington.

Manly film star Howard Keel played Adam, the eldest of seven backwoods brothers, and Jane Powell was Milly, the pretty, willful townie Adam quickly woos and weds — without telling her they’d be sharing a remote log cabin with his brood of six grungy bros.

Inspired by the Stephen Vincent Benet story, “The Sobbin’ Women” (also the title of an amusing song in the musical), “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” may be the only splashy American tuner to reference the Greek philosopher Plutarch.

Plutarch’s tale of ancient Roman males so desperate for brides that they abduct Sabine women inspires Adam’s macho clan to kidnap some country gals (who already have suitors) for the same purpose.

The 5th Avenue production boasts winning romantic and comic chemistry between a swaggering Edward Watts as Adam and ultra-spunky Laura Griffith as the defiant Milly. Both are first-rate singers — who need less amplification than they get.

But it’s the dance routines, based loosely on those so brilliantly choreographed for the film by Michael Kidd, that turn the production into a real barnburner.

Colombo borrows freely from the Americana dance vocabulary used by Kidd (and his like-minded peer Agnes De Mille) by fusing old-timey waltzing, clogging and square dancing, with ballet, gymnastic stunts and plenty of petticoat-twirling.

Such numbers as the raucous “Goin’ Courtin’ ” (where Milly tries tutoring the boys in the finer graces) and the rapturous “Spring, Spring, Spring” (an ode to young ardor, with some lovely, lilting partnering) nearly stop the show.

However, the longest ovation goes to a “challenge dance” in which the mountain men square off against their rivals, the prissier town boys, by taunting them with flying splits, backflips, cartwheels and pirouettes. (One does miss the trick dancing with lumber in the film, but you can’t have everything.)

Narver smoothly knits the dance extravaganzas into the knee-slapper high jinks of Lawrence Kasha and David S. Landat’s book. And her staging makes the brothers rugged ‘n’ rowdy primitives with the social skills of tree stumps. The actors playing them (including Mo Brady as the youngest pup Gideon) are able buffoons, as well as hunky, honed dancers.

Colombo’s choreography; the lushly arboreal forest settings and the mountain-vista backdrops by Anna Louizos; and Jess Goldstein’s costumes (grubby long johns to flouncy wedding gowns) were created for a recent run of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, which also starred Watts. It was a well-praised revamping of a much-maligned, short-lived first draft of the musical, which tanked on Broadway in 1982. The reworked book can still be corny, and the songs (the film odes by Johnny Mercer and Gene De Paul, and added tunes by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn), are more serviceable than memorable.

But the score is dispatched with hoedown fervor by the musicians under Gebert’s baton. And you can really shake-a-leg to it.

Misha Berson:

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