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Performing Arts

Pioneer woman

In ‘Quilters,’ OKCTC kicks off its 13th season with a musical about the American West and the women who settled it.

Larry Laneer September 21st, 2011

8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 2
Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker
$25, $20 students/seniors

Surely, you saw the musical history lesson “Quilters” sometime late in the last century. Originally produced in Colorado, the show was popular in the 1980s.

In case you didn’t or even if you did, Oklahoma City Theatre Company is presenting a passable production at the Freede Little Theatre. I’m glad they are, because running down this show would be a bit like kicking your granny in the shins.

Written by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, “Quilters” concerns the triumphs and travails encountered by the pioneers who settled the American West. It’s not exactly news that they endured great hardship. The weather alone — blizzards, twisters and drought — would be enough to discourage most of us. Then prairie fires and other catastrophes may finish off even the hardiest settlers.

These and more receive various degrees of consideration in “Quilters,” and you might learn something. For example, quilting also was done by men and boys, and a good quilter sews 11 stitches to the inch.

Directed by Rachel Irick, who has succeeded Richard Nelson as OKCTC’s artistic director, the ensemble cast sings, dances and enacts the experiences of settlers who sewed quilts, the quintessential utilitarian artwork. Be prepared for lots of dropped Gs: sewin’, mornin’, skinnin’, waitin’, choppin’, laughin’, settin’, blushin’, prickin’ (as in one’s fingers), among others. And such lines as “These quilts is from the ladies of the First Baptist Church.”

The score ranges from pop to hymns to music that would not sound out of place in a Sondheim musical. The best part is neither the cast nor the band is miked. With the Freede Little’s impeccable acoustics, the voices go directly from mouth to ear. It’s a pleasure — and rare today — to hear a musical unimpeded by amplification.

The actresses wear long print dresses with aprons (costumes by Marilyn Ragan), and the set is comprised mainly of a few stools and benches, and a clothesline on which actors hang samples of quilt patterns (Irick also designed the set). Jim Hutchison designed the simplified and highly effective lighting.

Newman and Damashek revel in the earthiness of pioneer life. In one scene, girls fret over the inevitable physical changes that some call “the curse” and others refer to as “a gift from God.”

In another scene that bears relevance today, a woman who already has 15 children is expecting another baby. She barely survived the last childbirth and fears she will not withstand another. The woman must stay healthy and strong for her husband and other children. She begs her doctor for “help,” but he says he’s sworn to save lives, not end them. What does this woman do? She does what has to be done, that’s what.

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