You may not realize it, but we have a Hale Centre Theatre in the Valley because a nice young couple, Ruth and Nathan Hale, moved from Salt Lake City to the L.A. area in 1943 and discovered they could get more acting work if they opened their own theater. The family business now operates five venues in three states.
When the Hales were road-tripping in the 1950s, they encountered an interesting family who lived on a remote mountaintop in the Canadian Rockies. Ruth and Nathan wrote a play based on the family's lives, April Ann, that's become a staple in the Hale chain. The current Gilbert run is the show's Valley premiere.
The story centers around 19-year-old Pitchard daughter April Ann (Heather McCloud) and her awakening into womanhood when two relatively eligible men appear on her doorstep. April Ann's the backbone of her household while Pa is out working his traps, and her critter-shootin', tree-fellin', barn-raisin' ways provoke admiration in one of her potential suitors and amused indifference in the other. And thereby hangs the conflict, which resolves in a predictable way, but with warm sincerity. (Except for Act II's kinda-sorta attempted rape, which is an unsettling staple of too many romance plots.)
April Ann is billed as a "comedy with music." It features several original songs that, despite being awkward, unremarkable, and lyrically repetitive, actually do underscore important aspects of the play's themes and characters. McCloud and her leading man Douger Opie have sweet voices and gamely keep up with the recorded accompaniment's breakneck pace. Still, your jaw may drop when you realize that not only did you just see a big solo number that's entirely about how good trees smell, it's going to be reprised in the second act.
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A fair amount of goofy humor arises from the fish-out-of-water situations you'd expect when people who've been isolated for decades are confronted with such novelties as mid-century conveniences and secondary education, while the visitors from mainstream society are impressed by the simple lifestyle and work ethic of their hosts.
A charming goofiness rules the simple choreography, too, and one bit of set dressing that my buddy and I agreed looks like a Bass Pro Shop -- but it's only lit and used for a few minutes, so we got over it. And I have to say that the Hales had a deft hand with dialogue. I learned a heap about outdoor plumbing, trapping, mining, killing grizzlies at close range, and turnips, among other things, without ever feeling lectured to. A lot of playwrights could take exposition lessons from this script.
April Ann runs through Friday, July 3, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 West Page Avenue in downtown Gilbert. Tickets are $17 to $24; order here or call 480-497-1181.