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Review: Sarah, Plain and Tall at the Dallas Theater Center


by Jerome Weeks 4 May 2009

Patricia MacLachlan’s award-winning children’s novel is quite modest, its small events are told in simple language. Those are its strengths. But the original, 64-page novel simply doesn’t have enough material for a full-length musical. The creators of the show currently premiering at the Dallas Theater Center — bookwriter Julia Jordan, songwriters Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe — originally staged a version of this show in New York in 2002. Here, they’ve kept many of the same actors, designers and director, but they’ve added even more conventional musical comedy material

CTA TBD

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Which one's the tall one? Cristen Paige, Kate Wetherhead and Becca Ayers in Sarah, Plain and Tall

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First, let’s remember that the show is called Sarah, Plain and Tall — with the stand-out term being plain, something of a drawback, even an insult, for a woman looking for a husband in the late 19th century. Yet that is Sarah Wheaton’s own description of herself.

It signals she’s a plainspoken, practical New Englander. She’s a single woman who dares to change her life, moving to a Kansas farm because she doesn’t want to encumber her brother and his newlywed wife in their Maine household. Striking out for the prairie, she hopes to find a new life as the mother to two children and the wife to their father Jacob Whitting, who put an ad in the paper for a mail-order bride.

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Battle of the sexes: Herndon Lackey, Becca Ayers, Max Ary, Kate Wetherhead in Sarah, Plain and Tall

Patricia MacLachlan’s award-winning children’s novel is actually quite modest; its small, personal events are told in simple language. Those are its strengths. It also suggests musical possibilities in that the young boy, Caleb (impressively played by Dallasite Max Ary), longs to have heard his late mother’s singing. She died after giving birth to him, so he never really knew her. He’s always pestering his acerbic older sister Anna (Kate Wetherhead) to sing their mother’s songs. And even before Sarah arrives, he’s curious about whether his new, would-be mother might sing.

But MacLachlan’s original, 64-page novel simply doesn’t have enough material for a full-length musical. The creators of the show currently premiering at the Dallas Theater Center — bookwriter Julia Jordan, songwriters Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe — originally staged a version of this show in New York in 2002. Here, they’ve kept many of the same actors, designers and director, but they’ve added even more conventional musical comedy material — to a story that doesn’t necessarily suit conventional musical comedy material.

Admirably enough, this Sarah is not designed as a splashy show. It has only eight performers on a single, handsome set (by designer Anna Louizos). Cranky traditionalists will still complain, “Where are the big dance numbers and hummable tunes?” But it’s hard for a musical to suggest the hard-worn, the taciturn or plainspoken — unless it’s exaggerated into the eccentric and comical. The strongest number that Benjamin and O’Keefe offer in the direct and honest and tender mode is “It Comes and Goes,” about the brevity and unpredictablity of life’s good fortune. It almost feels like a period folk tune, and it should.

But for the most part, the show’s creators have turned Sarah into a milder version of The Taming of the Shrew. This Sarah doesn’t leave Maine by choice, she’s driven out by her primping sister-in-law (making Sarah even less like a woman making her own choice to strike out from home). Sarah isn’t simply independent-minded here; she’s eccentric and impractical. She’s viewed by everyone as a fish out of water. She can’t even cook (in the book, she can cook, but she cooks stew, which Jacob finds odd but approves of). The lonely, withdrawn Jacob (Herndon Lackey) is hardly a swaggering ladykiller, but Sarah’s feisty spirit is tempered somewhat anyway, much like Kate’s in Shrew. And shades of Shakespeare’s comedy, there’s even a late-in-the-show bet by the husbands (or, in Jacob’s case, husband-to-be) on whether Sarah can make it through a dinner she has to prepare and serve herself. It feels thoroughly contrived, an old-fashioned sitcom idea.

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Becca Ayers and Herndon Lackey

To a great degree, Sarah was originally about the two children finding a mother — it’s even told from the point of view of Anna. And although the musical does underscore this in typically exaggerated fashion by making Anna even angrier at this intruder, much of this adaptation shifts into romantic comedy mode. It’s really about whether Jacob and Sarah will resolve their differences and kiss.

In fact, Sarah is goodhearted enough to deal out lessons for everybody in the Wheaton-Whitting clan (Sarah, for instance, isn’t really broken in spirit, only tempered). But for a show about love and loneliness (and parenting), the same “who’s the boss?” gender conflict breaks out among all three couples: Sarah vs. Jacob, Sarah’s mousey brother William and his manipulative bride Estelle, plus Jacob’s comical neighbors Matthew and Maggie. This routine makes the relationships feel predictable and dated — except, perhaps, the wink-wink disciplinary song, “Captain of the Ship,” with William (Kenneth Boys) and Estelle (Kate Loprest).

Otherwise, the “Taming of the Shrew” question of “who’s going to wear the pants in this family?” doesn’t really fit the original story or even its setting. Between 1875 and 1900 — roughly the time period of Sarah — a quarter of a million American women ran their own farms and ranches. They had to. I know, citing population statistics in a review about a musical comedy seems thoroughly incongruous. But it’s to illustrate a point: Jacob objecting to Sarah working the farm as an affront to traditional, manly roles is pure musical comedyland. Everyone had to work on a farm or a ranch. So Sarah’s request to wear overalls would not seem so jaw-droppingly outrageous.

Indeed, in the book, Jacob’s prime objection to Sarah’s helping him with everything is that she shouldn’t ride the horse Jack because Jack is “sly” and could hurt her. That’s mostly it — a concern for her safety. All the other differences they have are really about Midwesterners and a New Englander trying to accommodate each other, and a little girl who doesn’t want this new woman to replace the precious memory of her lost mother.  So the gender anxiety that pervades the musical is mostly trumped up.

And this stage version feels hokey and trumped up whether you know anything about life on the prairie or whether you even know original novel. That’s because what it feels like is Annie Get Your Gun. Benjamin and O’Keefe are sophisticated songwriters, especially when it comes to trios and quartets singing in counterpoint, advancing a scene or presenting the opposing sides in an argument. Yet there’s a competition here between Jacob and Sarah over the hay in the barn. It may not end the way the target-shooting contest in Annie Get Your Gun does, but one half-expects that Becca Ayers as Sarah will lament “You can’t get a man baling hay.”

This show feels that conventional, that oddly old-fashioned.

And that’s the plain truth.

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