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Strong cast powers 'Quilters: The Musical'

I hate quilts. I always have. Something about them makes me cringe, and in being forced to examine my aversion prior to attending “Quilters: The Musical” by Barbara Damashek, I realized that my reasoning was supercilious and unsound.

You see, quilts, to me, have always represented a sort of oppressive rural mindset, an obnoxious fastidiousness rooted in a fetid rusticity that finds its power in small-town suspicion and latent racialism. As a city boy, I despise such petty customs. As a reviewer, I’m forced to disassociate and look at any production in front of me — quilt-related or not — with objective eyes.

I’m glad I did, because Livia Genise and Deja Vu Productions staging of “Quilters, the Musical” — while thematically problematic and stitched together in a peculiar medley of vignettes dealing with the trials and tribulations of life in the American West — turned out to be a reliably entertaining afternoon of theater. In chatting with a senior audience member to my left, I realized that some of the credit probably goes to the fact that many in the audience seemed to be of advanced years. In the case of my seat mate, she had seen quilting as an important nostalgic talisman from the tight-knit culture of her pastoral youth.

But more importantly, and quite surprisingly, the quality of the cast for this particular production — made up of a group of women who have a seriously impressive combined theatrical resume — led to a strong and compelling telling of a story that might have come off as irredeemably corny in some other setting.

The performers — Dianna Warner, Cheryle Goodman-Morris, Renee Hewitt, Kathleen King, Kaitie Warner, Kendra Taylor and Lindee Newman — represent a wide swath of backgrounds and histories that lend themselves well to stories of female hardship on the prairie, with a show that covers a range of topics including childbirth, death, fever, precarious travel, romantic entanglements, self-induced abortions, religious zeal and other such horrors of the windswept plain.

Each section of the musical (which stretches close to three hours, including intermission) is signaled by the darning of another section of a massive “legacy quilt.” There are 16 sections in all, and I probably would have gone comatose by the time schmata No. 5 was getting its finishing stitches had it not been for the uncommonly bewitching talents of the assembled cast.

Leading the talent pool (and, if you’ll forgive me, doing most of the good work that elevates this production) is Kendra Taylor, a longtime regional thespian who is also director of choirs at a local high school and a protegee of community music titan Paul French. Taylor — who periodically retires from the stage to attend to her other profession — can’t seem to stop herself from bursting back onto the boards for the occasional season, each time a little more evolved in her creative capacity.

Having not seen her work for a couple of years, it’s clear that she has found her voice as a seriously talented actor and singer. Playing multiple instruments that include strings and winds, presenting a discreet but brilliant Jo-like character as an anchor to the production’s other little women, and delivering a soaring and singular soprano vocal that outstrips the other players by a mile, Taylor is easily the biggest draw in a group full of worthy artists.

The rest of the group do very well, too, holding together an expansive presentation with polish, professionalism and good cheer. At the end of the show, a monster quilt is unraveled as an emblem of their abiding solidarity — a worthy emblem of hard-earned life.

Since leaving Camelot Theatre some years ago, Director Livia Genise has been acting and directing, continuing to burgeon her reputation as a quality artist in the Rogue Valley. Recently, she has found a more resonant voice in stories of female transcendence, of the triumph of the underdog, and in political theater that is important to the time and place in which we now all live.

“Quilters: The Musical” — which since its debut in the 80s has not found much love among the urbane critics of the bi-coastal establishment — is a heartwarming and relatable piece of theater for those who can leave their preconceptions at the door. I’m certainly glad I did.

“Quilters the Musical” is produced by Deja Vu Productions in partnership with Livia Genise Productions. It plays July 20, 21, 26, 27 & 28 at 8 p.m. and Sundays July 22 and 29 at 2 p.m. at Bellview Grange, 1050 Tolman Creek Road, Ashland. For more information and ticketing, visit liviageniseproductions.org and click on “Productions and Tickets.”

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

Submitted photoStrong performances from the cast of "Quilters: The Musical" help make the production.