Pioneer Suite

By LIZ BYRON. I was a little wary as the lights dimmed around me before Saturday’s opening of Pioneer Suite. It’s a new musical by Keith Hovis that explores the lives of three Minnesotan women in the 19th century. Why was I wary? Well, I’m always apprehensive when it comes to new musicals; there are just so many moving parts that have to sync up, and with a smaller theatre (and therefore smaller stage, smaller budget, smaller cast) it seems like the risks of less-than-stellar performances go up.

Gail Ottmar as Mary, Kendall Anne Thompson as Martha, Kelly Matthews as Margaret. Photo from www.freshwatertheatre.com

Gail Ottmar as Mary, Kendall Anne Thompson as Martha, Kelly Matthews as Margaret. Photo from http://www.freshwatertheatre.com

Luckily, Freshwater Theatre was up to the task of staging a new musical. The stories flowed nicely, the songs were well-performed, and the music was catchy. Whew!

What struck me most about the content of Pioneer Suite was its relevancy. Although each of the three “movements” are set over 120 years ago, they deal with problems that are, sadly, ongoing. In The Nine Lives of Mrs Housel, Margaret Housel (Kelly Matthews) explains to us how her husband let her down and betrayed her, but she has somehow been painted as “the bad guy” because to the outside world, Mr Housel is more credible than his wife, given his position not just as a man, but a police officer. In Martha, Who’s Happy, Martha Dorsett (Kendall Anne Thompson as the older version, Gracie Anderson as the younger version) struggles to take charge of her life, and find a balance between career and home, success and happiness. Finally, in Melancholia, Mary Carpenter (Gail Ottmar) suffers from depression while surrounded by a well-intentioned family who doesn’t understand why she’s “sad” or how to make her feel better.

The temporal setting for each of these true stories, of course, emphasizes the role each character’s gender plays in their situations. I’d like to think that each of these three women would have an easier time of it in 2015, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true.

Each piece, particularly the first (dealing with suicide) and the last (dealing with depression), packs an emotional punch that comes across in some really beautiful songs – Lies My Mother Told Me in the first movement and Melancholia in the third had me in tears for their emotional strength and the beauty of the performances.

As is so often the case with songs that have a lot of exposition, some of the lyrics were hard to understand, due to a combination of fast delivery, quieter voices/louder instruments, and the fact that it’s easier to mentally “fill in the blanks” in a song about a traditional topic (love, break-ups, etc) than a song about historical dates and facts. However, this never really got in the way of understanding the message of the songs, so I wasn’t too concerned.

The only thing that really gave me pause in Pioneer Suite was the way the three stories were combined. Although a more musically inclined person than me may have noted the clues in the title of the piece and the fact that each story was referred to as a movement, I went into this expecting one larger story told in three parts, which was not the case. The fact that each of the three women passes off the spotlight to the next woman, and the fact that both opening and closing numbers include all three women gave the impression that there was some overreaching theme. The closing number hits us over the head with this theme: being a pioneer woman in the 1800s was difficult. This is true, but the differences in the struggles Margaret, Martha, and Mary face are so vast that connecting their stories seems like a stretch – and an unnecessary one. If all three main characters never shared the stage, this would have been more like an anthology of three short stories than a single book with three relatively unrelated plots. Pulling them all together at the end felt like a bit of a reach, and one that we didn’t really need.

That said, this is a beautiful, emotional show that sheds light on some too-seldom told stories, and highlights not just local history, but current local talent, both of which are entirely deserving of your time and energy.

Pioneer Suite by Keith Hovis, presented by Freshwater Theatre, runs October 3-18, 2015 at Nimbus Theatre, 1517 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $18 ($15 with Fringe button/seniors/students) at www.freshwatertheatre.com or by calling 612-816-8479.

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