ORANGE — There is a recipe, dating from the mid-19th century, for a magnificent sourdough starter. The woman who carried this recipe across the Plains at that time wrote in her diary that she was afraid of just two things: that the sourdough starter would die, and hostile Indians.
This was the kind of woman who built the West. And it is this special breed that "Quilters" brings back to life. Avoidance of the Native Americans was a matter of survival. So was the preservation of the sourdough starter. Their families had to eat.
This charming quilt of a show, at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, goes beyond sourdough starter. There is an Indian massacre. There are violent storms and raging fires. Barbara Damashek and Molly Newman based their script on actual letters and diaries of pioneer women, and some of the music included in the show is traditional. The new music, by Damashek, blends artfully and seamlessly in the fabric.
Like one of the quilts that provided both physical comfort and an emotional bond for these pioneers, the show is made up of "blocks." The actresses play many women, young and old, wise and witless, like the fragments of fabric that make up the blocks.
Their tales of endless childbirth, the limited scope of their youthful wooing and courting, the continuing disasters that would have daunted lesser women and the practical necessity of family strength and community sharing are crowned by the pervading sense of optimism and belief in the future that are all but lost today.
Director Cherie Brown knows the territory, and if some of the seams between the dramatic blocks of the play are a little ragged, the blocks themselves have a strong sense of period and dedication.
She has gathered a cast that is sincere, caring and aware of the authors' intent. All have a tendency to lose control of vocal tone in violent dialogue, but musically they are an exceptional bunch, with a vocal blend that carries sentiment and spirit.
Susie Huarte plays Sarah, the nominal matriarch, with the other six actresses listed as Daughters. Kimberly Blair, Samantha Klein, Karen Nowicki, Tania Obteshka, Karen Osborn and Eilyne Tracy all capably and easily move from image to image, from one emotional level to another. Blair, Huarte and Obteshka stand out for the richness of their vocal treatments.
The choreography, by Cyrus Parker-Jeannette, is energetic and conscious of the time and stands out particularly in "The Windmill Song." Lawrence Green's musical direction could sometimes be a bit brighter, as could much of the production, but he knows the shape and feel of the period sound the script requires.
* "Quilters," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Wednesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. Ends Oct. 26. $5-$9. (714) 997-6812. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
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Susie Huarte: Sarah
Kimberly Blair: Daughter
Samantha Klein: Daughter
Karen Nowicki: Daughter
Tania Obteshka: Daughter
Karen Osborn: Daughter
Eilyne Tracy: Daughter
A Chapman University/School of Communication Arts, Theatre and Dance Department production of the musical by Barbara Damashek and Molly Newman. Directed by Cherie Brown. Musical direction: Lawrence Green. Choreography: CyrusParker-Jeannette. Scenic/audio design: Craig Brown. Lighting design: Ron Coffman. Costume design: Camile Coyne. Makeup: Joanne Taras. Stage manager: Heather Grindstaff.