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BWW Review: CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN is Precious Time Well Spent at Bellevue Little Theatre

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BWW Review: CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN is Precious Time Well Spent at Bellevue Little Theatre

So, 43 years ago I married a man who was one of 16 children. Yes. Sixteen. He grew up in a three bedroom farmhouse in Central Nebraska. The nine boys shared three beds in one bedroom; the seven girls shared the second bedroom. They shared socks and underwear and one bathroom with one bathtub. They gathered around an old oak table at meal times, and somehow squeezed as many as possible into one car on the rare occasion that they would have to go somewhere far enough to require a motor vehicle. They played together, argued together, and they sang together. His dad suffered a heart attack when he was still quite young, leaving his mom to raise their family.

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN tells a similar story. Based on their childhood, two Gilbreth siblings, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr., wrote Cheaper by the Dozen in 1948. Christopher Sergel later adapted the book for stage in 1992. The story goes like this:

Frank Sr. and Lillian Gilbreth are raising their 12 children in Montclair, New Jersey. Frank, a time and motion efficiency expert, uses his family as a testing platform to streamline functions, whether it be household chores or bathing. Using a whistle to line up his children for roll call, he times them to see if they can make muster in an ever decreasing time. (SOUND OF MUSIC, anyone?) They hold family council meetings where they vote as a "family democracy" on matters of general interest. As chairman, Mr. Gilbreth's voice is the deciding vote. As his girls get older and discover a budding interest in boys, he decides that silk stockings and dating are not of general interest. His new math system for multiplying double digits, however, is of general interest. But he can't quite suppress the ever increasing rebellion of his eldest daughter, Anne, who resists with demur charm underscored with an iron will.

Mr. Gilbreth (Michael Taylor-Stewart) runs his family like clockwork. Although he is clearly in charge, he calls his wife (Sara Planck) "Boss." Boss calmly goes along with much of what her husband says, but is there to soften the edges and make peace between him and his eldest daughter, Anne (Amanda Srygley). Amanda and her sisters Ernestine (Kayleigh Burley) and Martha (Amy Marie Wagner) team up to convince their father that they need to dress like the other girls in school. That means silk stockings and teddies. Ernestine and Martha are looking to Anne to lead the way in newfound freedoms.

Mr. Gilbreth jokes with his wife that they should have had all boys, "I am not blaming you, Boss," he says, "but you should have listened to me." One of the boys, Bill (Daniel Davis) is sent along on dates with Anne as a chaperone. Davis is high spirited and comedic as he spies on his sister with good humored mischief. The eldest son, Frank Jr (Otto Fox) sounds a voice of maturity.

Fox and Burley serve as narrators for the story, filling in the gaps, such as why Mr. Gilbreth is in such a hurry to get his kids graduated from school. Burley, especially, enunciates so clearly that not a word is dropped. It is a fine touch to have the writers of the book be the narrators of the story being carried out live on stage.

As Mr. Gilbreth, Stewart maintains an almost monotone through much of the play. It is effective because it makes him sound mechanistic. When Srygley gets her father's temper up, he fires up the volume and shows he does, indeed, have strong feelings. Srygley does an amazing job of rebelling without disrespecting. Her demeanor is consistently sweet, even when she's presenting her arguments about matters of interest...such as dating.

Anne's first date ends abruptly when cheerleader Joe Scales (Matthew Kischer) is caught cheering in the living room by Mr. Gilbreth, the most hilarious few minutes of the show. He is all but thrown out and threatens to ensure no other boy will ask out a Gilbreth.

What is so engaging about this play, ably directed by Jon Flower and assisted by Nora Shelton, is the actors' intuitive interaction between the controlling but loving parents and their children, and between the siblings themselves. There are the responsible kids, the always-up-to-something kids, and the darling youngest (Quinn LeCraw) that you know will end up getting anything she wants. There is a bit of squabbling and a whole lot of love. They even enjoy singing together as a family, which somehow brings harmony in more ways than one.

Mr. Gilbreth hides his heart condition from his family and puts on a brave front. He goes through the motions of nudging Amanda into early graduation, despite obstacles thrown up by the testy Miss Brill (Kim Alger), and organizing his children into self sufficiency. And then-- living long enough to see it through.

Save time for where your heart lies, by jingo. Time is precious.

Photo: Amanda Syrgley, Otto Fox, Kayleigh Burley, Amy Marie Wagner (back row), Sara Planck and Michael Taylor-Stewart (front row) Credit: Clara Sue Arnsdorf, Bellevue Little Theatre


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