"Quilters," which opened last night at the Lawrence, is a gem of a mini-musical, an utterly disarming sewing circle of a musical. It is like a living lithograph of spirited 19th-century American pioneer women from all over the country, joined by their common mastery of quilting.
Now, that sounds fairly prosaic, but I can assure you that when, at the finish, an enormous quilt is raised aloft behind these women standing on a bare raked wooden stage, the effect is more joyous than the first-act "finished painting" finale in "Sunday in the Park with George."
This show, derived from a book of reminiscences by women with long memories, has been put together with such artful simplicity by a sure hand belonging mainly to Barbara Damashek, who is responsible for the songs, the staging, and (in collaboration with Molly Newman) the book, that one can only marvel at the results.
Designed, costumed and lighted with an emphasis on earth tones, it is performed by seven splendid women, the matronly Lenka Peterson and six versatile young charges, along with an adroit and folksy sounding quintet that emerges fully from the wings to start the second half with an understated square-dance romp.
No single scene is labored as these lovely performers experience the hardships of life on the prairie or plains, childbirth, twisters, courtship, spinsterhood, fire and other aspects of their lives that find their way, like threads, into the patterns of their quilts. And the quilts, like their children, are not merely testaments to their being, they are the means of keeping warm as stiff winds penetrate the log cabins and force them to huddle together beneath these coverings beautifully designed from sewn together remnants.
So, blessings on you Evalyn Baron, Marjorie Berman, Alma Cuervo, Lynn Lobban, Rosemary McNamara, Jennifer Parsons, Lenka Peterson and the men and women of the band. With th help of Barbara Damashek, you have created an exquisite musical quilt to simple melodies, simple words, and (but for two of the instrumentalists) without the aid of men. We hear of husbands and lovers, and "see" them once or twice when a performer dons a cowboy hat and utters a few husky lines, but "Quilters" is a veneration of womanhood by its very nature, for to adapt a recent catch phrase to bygone times, real men don't (or didn't) sew quilts.
Quilters is a show pieced together with love and stitched with pride. Just like the work of American folk art that inspired it, this new dramatic musical by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek (playing at the Jack Lawrence Theater, 359 W. 48th St.) is a thing of beauty, comfort and joy. Go - wrap yourself up in it.
These songs, stories and biographies of American quilters and their craft were gathered by the authors from many sources, including the classic study, "The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art."
Artfully arranged here for the stage by Barbara Damashek (who also wrote the delicate score), this wealth of material folds itself into graceful patterns that summarize the collective experience of the pioneer women who stitched their lives into every intricate design.
There are 20 movements, or pieces, in Quilters and each follows a quilting pattern.
"Rocky Road" serves as the theme for the early famililes who crossed the country to settle the West.
"Windmill" tells of the resourceful settlers who made water flow in the desert.
"Shadow Blocks" speaks eloquently about the pain of bearing children.
Each chapter in these moving oral histories is announced by the ritual unfolding of a quilt - a spectacular collection designed by Ursula Belden from traditional patterns - which is then used the way women actually used quilts in those days: to celebrate happy occasions as gifts, to protect the family from dust storms and tornadoes, to beat out fires, to bandage the wounded, to shroud the dead.
Even under Allen Lee Hughes' softly textured lighting, the quilts have a stark, somber beauty, rarely broken by patches of joyful color.
Seven actresses and five musicians work with concentrated care to preserve the seamlessness of the material in production.
With Lenka Peterson at the center of each thematic pattern, as matriarch who teaches generations of daughters how to stitch the family history, the company sings in tight harmony, moves in unbroken unity.
Using story-theater performance technique - hoop-frames become Conastoga wagons, folded quilts are opened and read like books, actors' arms churn the air as windmill blades - the ensemble becomes as self-sufficient as the women whose histories they relate.
Like the quilts themselves, all these patterns are important; beautiful as well as functional, they tell our history - and they tell how women made it.
''Quilters,'' the first Broadway production of the new season, is billed as a ''musical,'' but it might better serve as a diorama at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Adapted from a slender book of oral history by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen, this show means to celebrate those hearty pioneer women who turned a domestic craft into a spirited native form of autobiographical art. The women who created ''Quilters,'' Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, clearly know a lot about quilting and the unsung heroines who practiced it. If the entertainment at the Jack Lawrence Theater is any indication, their knowledge of theater is somewhat less acute.
Apparently proceeding from the misguided conviction that what works on cloth can work on stage, the authors have given their libretto a patchwork structure. ''Quilters'' is a static melange of skits, monologues and songs unified by a theme rather than a sustained plot or characters. The theme - the indominatability of American women - is so superficially explored that it never amounts to more than a tired slogan. The colors that should enliven it - those provided by the cast, score and dances - are generally as monochromatic as the beige backcloth that is the principal feature of Ursula Belden's set.
That backcloth represents the raw canvas for a quilt whose construction ''Quilters'' intends to dramatize. At the outset, an elderly woman, Sarah (Lenka Peterson), announces that she is about to make a ''legacy quilt'' in which each patchwork ''block'' will illustrate her ''memories, hopes, dreams and prayers.'' But it soon turns out that Sarah is less a person than a conceit - a symbolic composite of all matriarchs. The six women who help act out her memories are called ''the daughters'' - yet they prove not to be Sarah's actual progeny but an ever-changing army of cameo characters culled from the oral testaments at the authors' disposal.
Thanks to this scheme, ''Quilters'' manages to rob its raw material of its most vital elements - its specificity and authenticity. Instead of hearing the detailed individual histories of various women, we hear only tiny, fleeting scraps of those histories, generally pared down to red-letter events that are supposed to sum up the eternal heritage of Womanhood (or at least White Protestant Womanhood). Though the show contains a continuous flood of incidents - births, baptisms, adoptions, marriages, deaths, natural disasters - the figures inhabiting these tableaux vivants are so bloodlessly sketched that we don't care what's happening to whom.
The apotheosis of the show's method is the Act I finale. The women assemble for a quilting party and, in turn, deliver lengthy monologues confessing their feelings about James Earl Prentice, the man whose quilt they are making. This would be fascinating were it not for the fact that James Earl Prentice, whoever he may be, never appears in ''Quilters'' and is never otherwise mentioned. Most of the time, we don't even know exactly where or when the events are occurring - with the consequence that ''Quilters'' often seems to contain as much genuine historical grit as ''Little House on the Prairie.''
There is, however, no shortage of nostalgic trimmings: biblical homilies, arcane folklore and homespun humor. (''We were all so tired, we slept like logs,'' says the occupant of a newly built log cabin.) As director, Miss Damashek relies heavily on mimed sequences, folk dance formations and choral speaking - all of which suggest how once-inventive Story Theater techniques may have been trampled into cliches in the regional theaters where ''Quilters'' has previously prospered. Miss Damashek's songs, played by on-stage musicians in quaint hoedown garb, are shreds of ersatz folk music accompanied by lyrics such as, ''Oh the green, green, green of the rolling green lawns.'' Though the evening's synthetic, candied brand of Americana may not carry anyone back to the lone prairie, it does arouse memories of the more aggressive gift shops in Colonial Williamsburg.
Like its similarly intentioned Broadway predecessor, ''Foxfire,'' ''Quilters'' might be slightly less tedious if Jessica Tandy were at hand. In the would-be Tandy role, the usually capable Miss Peterson is a strangely humorless, even dour, matriarch. Most of the ''daughters'' are at best sincere - and some of them, notably Evalyn Baron, have accents that suggest Manhattan's idea of the boondocks. The best voices and spunkiest personalities belong to Alma Cuervo and, especially, Rosemary McNamara.
Allen Lee Hughes's lighting is, as always, exquisite. But the evening's biggest visual thrill occurs at the end, when the finished quilt, designed by Miss Belden, at last unfurls. It's so glorious a tapestry that one can momentarily forget that the rest of ''Quilters'' is threadbare.