Power Through Simplicity

The Power of Simple Musical Romance

Oct. 21, 2010
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A very, very big rural Wisconsin is brought to the stage of the Broadway Theatre Center. Lisa Schlenker’s set uses a great deal of vertical space to lock in that feeling of immensity—in an immensity painted in striking clarity with the photons carefully set in motion by lighting designer Jason Fassl. There’s a distant field out there that seems to stretch forever into the horizon. Old farming implements hang on a huge set dressing reminiscent of a weathered barn. There’s an idyllic coziness to the immensity of it all—a quaint atmosphere that draws audiences in to the mood of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Main-Travelled Roads.

Based on late 19th century stories from author Hamlin Garland, the musical premiered at the American Folklore Theatre in 2007. The Paul Libman/David Hudson musical is a pleasant blend of musical styles. There are shades of Stephen Sondheim in the music, which also draws on a variety of other sources to mix a sweeping, epic rural drama with very down-to-earth emotional realities between everyday people.

There are a couple of different stories going on here. Libman and Hudson have done a good job of stringing together a pair of stories that play on a range of human emotion without getting too bogged-down in the complexities at the heart of the human condition. The stories are set in a late 19th century Wisconsin, but they could be set anywhere.

The two main storylines feature romantic love conquering some pretty serious adversity. Their relative simplicity would likely come across as cheesy and sentimental were it not for the efforts of a really talented cast. In one story, Chase Stoeger plays a young law student falling in love with an attractive young woman played by Jennifer L. Shine. Their budding romance is cut short by a simple miscommunication. The story features Scott Haden as the somewhat slimy head of a threshing operation.

The script allows Haden and Shine the challenge of reversing roles rather suddenly in the show’s other major love story, which is inter-spliced with the law student/thresher story. Shine plays a wonderfully sympathetic heroine opposite Haden’s generally distasteful thresher. In a second story Haden plays a creamery man who is falling for an attractive “yankee,” girl who goes off to finishing school . . . it’s Hadden’s turn to be likeable as the creamery man . . . with Shine playing a generally superficial and unsympathetic character. That Shine and Haden are able to switch characters rather quickly with relatively simple characters speaks to a really talented cast and remarkably well-orchestrated drama on the part of Molly Rhode. Stoeger is given a couple of generally like-able characters to play. Stoeger has little difficulty bringing a pleasant affability to any stage. Clare Arena Haden's most memorable character here is that of a German girl who desperately wants to be American in order to catch the eye of the Creamery Man.

The musical end of the show runs rather smoothly as well. Musical moods are painted with a great degree of precision. Piano, guitar and bass are all respectably handled . . . but it’s Rich Higdon’s work on the washboard that ended up being most impressive to me . . . Higdon is given credit in the program as bassist—an instrument he handles beautifully, but his work on the humble washboard was truly remarkable. Never really thought much of it as an instrument until I saw Higdon on the washboard last night . . .

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Main-Travelled Roadsruns through October 31st at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre.


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