As odious as it may be, sometimes comparison is unavoidable. Take "Frontiers," which opened Thursday at the Victory Theatre in Burbank. It is impossible to see it and not recall the Tony-nominated musical "Quilters."
The two chronicle the tales and travails of pioneer women--always a passionate subject. "Frontiers," which is a series of monologues and/or conversations among numerous women (played by four actresses), isn't even minus music. An intriguing original score has been contributed by Tena Clark. It is only minus songs.
That said, one should add that many of the strengths and weaknesses of both shows resemble each other. "Frontiers," written by writer-actors Valerie Daemke, Kathleen Gaffney, Nancy Sellin and Doreen Dunn and rousingly performed here by Dunn, Mary Ann Chinn, Debbie Combs and Sagan Lewis, has its gamut of predictable emotional stops, from touching to funny to--disclaimers to the contrary--cute.
Perhaps cuteness is endemic to the diaries, journals and oral histories on which such shows are based. In the case of "Frontiers," we're told the scenes are culled from the Lilla Day Monroe Collection at the Kansas State Historical Society, the Rendle Family History and the Recollections of Essie Stallworth McGowin. Some are more vivid than others and, in fairness, their variety, the lilting tempo set by director Dennis Romer and the fine work of the actresses--especially Chinn and Combs who manage to inhabit the remotest corners of their characters, however different--make this show pleasant, if not stirring.
Combs' Petrel, the dutiful English daughter who writes unflappably cheerful letters to her mother describing her horrendous ordeals in the American West is a memorable creation. And Chinn's religious fanatic, praying for a sign of disapproval from God when a dance is planned to help fund the new church, manages to pull off the improbable: making a potentially unsavory character fun.
Lewis and Dunn (who turned in a humorous/enigmatic Indian witch doctor) have fewer opportunities to shine, but we're talking about just that: opportunity and sometimes a matter of shading. Lewis, for instance, appears disconcertingly healthy and chatty as a mother dying postpartum, but then that whole scene could go. It's the show's tritest moment.
Favorites tended to be scenes that offered more complex orchestrations or understatement or both, such as the mother of grown daughters who still longs to go "home" after nine years in the prairie (Chinn, Combs, Lewis), or the childless Mrs. Woodward's (Dunn's) recital of how malaria ravaged the mind of the beautiful neighbor child Tessie, or Chicago field reporter Teresa Dean's account (another crackerjack portrait by Chinn) of the capture by Sioux of two white women and of their unexpected fates.
There is skill in the way the episodes are stitched together ( without benefit of quilts--the word never even comes up) and, given the striking simplicity of D. Martyn Bookwalter's latticed set (beautifully lit by him, too), "Frontiers" seems a natural for a tour of the Western states.
Meanwhile, you may catch it at 3326 Victory Blvd. in Burbank, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. until July 21. (213) 851-3771.