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THEATER REVIEW

`Quilters' stitches together a tribute

Through `blocks,' the musical highlights the travails and triumphs of women on the frontier.

January 24, 2007|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

First produced on Broadway in the mid-1980s, the musical "Quilters" is based on actual oral histories of pioneer women during America's westward expansion. In a world where so many women are culturally marginalized, it's refreshing to indulge in some purely patriotic contemplation of women's roles on the American frontier, the settling of which required a concentrated symbiosis between the sexes that was arguably unique in world history.

Now being presented by Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse, "Quilters" still packs an undeniable emotional punch, despite its somewhat piecework structure. Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek's book (Damashek did the lyrics and music) sometimes seems roughly stitched together from clashing remnants, as evidenced in a jarringly inconsequential first act ending.

And Steven Smith's typically assured musical direction seems a bit off-kilter here, while Katrina Mahoney's choreography is occasionally clunky, perhaps because of the steeply raked stage in Christopher Beyries' spare scenic design.

Fortunately, director Stephanie A. Coltrin and her excellent ensemble vividly recapitulate these women's travails and triumphs, with cathartic results. The play's chief character, Sarah (Aileen Marie Scott), is the matriarch to a clan of seven daughters, played by Jenny DiBenedetto, Marianna Frendo, Alison Kaufman, Kimberly Patterson, Anne Fraser Thomas, Anne Walsh and Lola Ward. However, Sarah is the only character who has a specifically developed identity. Her daughters, by contrast, are more generic, portraying a plethora of frontierswomen whose experiences range from the everyday to the epic.

The action unfolds in "blocks," named for various quilt patterns -- gorgeous examples of which are unfurled throughout the play. The blocks range from the "Rocky Road Across," detailing the difficult cross-country passage, to the more domestic "Schoolhouse," in which a dedicated teacher plies her trade in a one-room schoolhouse, a cozy microcosm -- until a cyclone rips through.

Through drought, blizzards, roaring prairie fires and difficult pregnancies, quilting provided a sense of permanence and pattern, a feeling that something beautiful and enduring could be pieced together from the scraps of a former life. It's fitting that this modest and homespun craft should emerge as such a towering symbol of the American frontier experience. At play's end, when a huge and beautiful quilt unfolds upstage, we feel an almost mystical kinship with these intrepid women, as well as renewed pride in their remarkable accomplishments.

*

`Quilters'

Where: Hermosa Beach Playhouse, Pier Avenue at Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Jan. 28

Price: $35 to $45

Contact: (310) 372-4477

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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