It would be easy to make various sewing, stitching, and quilting references while writing this review of the College of Charleston’s presentation of Quilters (which closed Feb. 26), but the quality of the production does not require a gimmick to help write a better review.
Maida Libkin, director, artist-in-residence, and co-founder of The Company Company pieces together a talented cast, unique staging, and gifted musicians to create a patchwork that’s part musical, part history lesson, a touch of Little House on the Prairie, and a dash of hardship.
The result is a mosaic of patterns covering the audience with harmonic Appalachian entertainment on a rainy winter night.
Now that that’s out of my system: There are some awkward moments in the show. Seven women play countless roles as they re-enact a montage of stories gleaned by creators Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek from the book The Quilters Women and Domestic Arts by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen.
This results in a musical that, like Footlight’s production of Crowns last month, is based a theme rather than supported by a strong plot.
The thin central storyline, a mother making a final quilt for her daughters, reveals performance weaknesses. A stronger plot or more developed characters would overcome actors’ cutting each other off on occasion or rushing their lines, delivering them as if trying to regurgitate something memorized.
During its short 24-performance run on Broadway, Quilters received tepid reviews from critics and lackluster ticket sales, yet went on to be nominated for six Tony awards, including best musical. The contrast between the short run and unfavorable reviews clearly illustrates the challenge Libkin faced in staging this musical.
She succeeds quite well. Small acting problems aside, the vocal performance of the seven-woman cast was excellent, their voices harmonizing in a clear and believable cadence and symmetry.
Were this 30 years ago, the cast could easily move on and form a gospel group with some success, so well do they sing together. They truly form a talented ensemble where no one stands out longer than her brief moment in the spotlight.
William Schlitt, the other half of The Company Company, conducts a five-piece band that would do equally well as a stand-alone performance. Featuring hammer dulcimer, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and harp among other instruments, the members all play very well and provide one of the best musical accompaniments of the season.
With members of the band sometimes coming on stage to emphasize a poignant moment, it becomes hard to tell where the instruments end and the voices begin.
Set designer Paige Stanley also adds to the success of the show. In the beginning, the stage appears bare, and almost too simple given the quality of sets created this year for CofC productions. Yet as the story unfolds, so do the flat set pieces. Laying about the stage, they rise up to become homes, dugout shelters, wedding chapels, and arbor trees. Lighting by John Olbrych adds to each scene, setting mood, tone, and emphasizing each pattern of the 15 blocks that make up the patchwork quilt.
For those who are a little older, the show provides almost a nostalgic history lesson on the origins of those quilts we used to find on our beds when we visited our grandparents. Quilting is a fading tradition, something truly American in nature, and while the book and score might lack the requirements to become a Broadway sensation, it does possess all of the qualities needed to educate, enlighten, and entertain.
The College of Charleston continues their excellent work this season of producing quality work while training the next generation of performing artists. Now if we could only make graduates stay in town to practice their art instead of heading off to make their fortunes, Charleston would gain one more enticement to draw tourists to town.