The musical play “Quilters” opens with the sound of a mesmerizing violin played with evocative and unrestrained feeling by Gloria Ferry-Brennan through the overture. She is joined by Leanne Godsey at the piano and into the song “Pieces of Lives,” and so begins the journey of one memorable theatrical experience that tugs at the heart and lifts the spirit.
Narrator Sarah McKendree Bonham, played deftly by Jill Johnson in a bit of perfect casting, introduces the audience to the story of her hard-won life as a pioneer woman in the American West, along with her nine daughters, using the quilts they made over the years as a kind of photo album of their full and sometimes treacherous lives.
“Quilters,” which opened this past weekend at Whidbey Children’s Theater and runs through Sunday, June 5, blends a series of interrelated scenes into a rich mosaic which captures the vast sweep of life that women pioneers faced in all its beauty and tragedy, its challenges and its rewards.
The play, created by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek based on the book “The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art” by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen, makes the best use of theater to tell its story.
Rather than a straightforward storyline, the musical is presented as a series of short tales and tableaux presented as “blocks” (like the blocks of a quilt) and are matched with musical numbers, each presenting an aspect of frontier life or womanhood.
Through music, dance and drama, the audience is taken on a journey through girlhood, marriage, childbirth, spinsterhood, twisters, fire, illness, aging and death.
But interspersed within the thread of these stories is love, warmth, rich and lively humor and here, luckily, the emotional life of the characters as illuminated by the actors who breathe into them.
Everything about this Whidbey Children’s Theater production is heartfelt and exuberant.
Director Lani Brockman, and musical director Shelley Hartle, have managed to find the perfect balance between broad, movement-based theatrical tableaux, and the more intimate moments of these women’s personal journeys, following them through story and song to both their homesteads in the American West and to their place as women in the world.
Brockman directs her energetic cast with efficiency by creating smart stage pictures and making good use of theatrical tools, such as quilter’s hoops to convey the wheels of a wagon, waves of bright red fabric to make fire, or a circle of spinning bodies to depict a windmill.
The score offers a mix of the jubilant, the sorrowful and the tenacious, and are not always sung perfectly, though Hartle has worked wonders making use of this cast’s harmonic abilities. There are moments when a soloist or two struggled to remain in key — though on Friday evening Ambria Prosch and Jasmine O’Brochta made each of their solo moments memorable with astoundingly beautiful and perfectly pitched voices — but with this show, it doesn’t matter. Each and every performer was a study in pioneering presence, rounding out the stories of life on early American farms with brittle emotion, never holding back, vulnerable and entertaining to the end.
In fact, one of the final musical numbers is called “Hands All Hands Around” in which the entire cast sings a multiple-part harmony and does it beautifully, making it alone worth the price of a ticket.
Go see this show for its vivacious cast, its irrepressible voice of history, its great use of theatricality and its ability to lift the spirit with honest emotion and joyful entertainment.
“Quilters” plays at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 5.
Call 221-2282 for tickets, which are $12 for adults, $8 for students and seniors.