Picture a quaint and homey set, now add a soft spoken mother figure who introduces the show, and then a girl- and boy-next-door type that narrate the beginning of act one. You now have the serene start of Newtown Arts Company’s newest production, CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN. All is not peaceful for long. Once a whistle blows we are quickly introduced to nine children whose discipline and manners are reminiscent of the von Trapps. While these children don’t break out in song, we come to learn they are just as talented when it comes to math and IQ testing.
Overseeing this brood is Mr. Gilbreth (Scott Young), a straight-laced father who lives by efficiency and education, and by jingo, does he say “by jingo” a lot. Adoringly known as “Boss” to her husband, Mrs. Gilbreth (Martha Stringer) is a much calmer counterpart, but she does exude a quiet strength that makes you believe she won’t be pushed around. Young plays the no-nonsense father role well, especially since his off-stage son is also in the cast. He mixes some fun and heartwarming moments with stubborn fatherly protocol, giving his character both range and credibility. Stringer is also believable in her motherly role, even though it’s astonishing that a woman can be so zen when surrounded by children.
Ernestine (Claire Norden) and Frank (Chad McCutcheon) are the two narrators mentioned earlier. Part of their main role is narrating the flashbacks that make up a majority of the play and providing the audience with backstory. Their speech and mannerisms make them seem wise beyond their years, but once a certain adolescent subject arises, like boys, they revert back to their childlike tendencies.
Anne (Hannah Sobolovitch) is the oldest girl of the family, which means she’s the one to turn to when starting a revolution against certain rules, like stocking styles and dating. Anne takes on her role as the oldest with panache, until she doesn’t get her way and then the teen angst shows through. Martha (Grace Garron) seems to be the lovable naive one in the family, and the audience eats it up and laughs out loud over Martha’s never-ending excitement.
The Gilbreth boys, Dan (Christopher Sax), Bill (Ryan Young), and Fred (Andrew Fellows), all play that mischievous and sarcastic brother that we all love but just want to nuggie. Lillian (Julia Philon) is stuck in the middle and shows some of the roguish characteristics of her brothers. Jackie (Katie Pearcy) is the youngest one seen on stage, but what she lacks in age and size, she makes up in energy as she shows off her mathematic ability and joie de vivre.
All Gilbreth children seem to have the same spirit and joy, and each actor carries that throughout the play. Even in the moments when they look defeated by the burdens of childhood, chores, and studying, they still carry a certain spark. Sometimes that spark explodes into an obnoxious display of chaos on stage where some lines are talked and screamed over, but once order is restored we get to see the talent these young actors possess.
Throughout the play, the family is joined by a number of supporting characters that bring their own flair to the show. Whenever the patient and practical housekeeper, Mrs. Fitzgerald (Sybil Cooper) enters the room, she elicits a giggle from the audience. Anne is visited by two (not-so-gentlemanly) callers, a spirited Joe Scales (Gary Lumpkin) and lovable Larry (Bobby Reiser). Prim and proper Miss Brill (Margaret DeAngelis) seems a little hypocritical as an educator who is not excited to see these children succeed. Dr. Burton (David Danner) pays Mr. Gilbreth a visit that puts a new perspective on the show.
While most of the play discusses the ups and downs of family, childhood, and efficiency through “scientific management”, we learn there’s a greater purpose to this science. It’s more than just making the most of the time we have, it’s about saving time for the things we love. If you love the theater and have a special place in your heart for real-life stories of large families, save some time to see this show.
CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN
adapted by Christopher Sergel
Based on the book by Frank Gilbreth
and Elizabeth Gilbreth Carey
Directed by James McCrane
April 18-24, 2013
Newtown Arts Company
120 North State Street
Newtown, PA 18940