The production of The Quiltmaker's Gift at the Bartell Theatre by the Madison Creative Arts Program, or MadCAP, is a simple show that comes off as a simple show should: a little rough around the edges, but full of heart. This musical was directed by Paul Milisch and Kjerstie Johanson and is based on Jeff Brumbeau's children's book by the same name.
I caught the second show of opening day (because it's a show for children, all performances are matinees), and the cast and crew put on an enthusiastic performance despite a nearly empty theater. Most of the folks in the seats were college students and, therefore, didn't fit the demographic for whom this play is intended, but they laughed in all the right places, applauded heartily, and seemed to enjoy themselves.
With kids in mind, the set is sparse, but splashed with color. The backdrop is unfussy and appropriate: a large quilt from which the actors emerge at the show's start. Throughout the production, the actors are put to work moving props for scene changes, and as they labor they babble in a made-up language that is sure to puzzle and delight young audience members.
The story of the play unfolds like a fable. An old woman lives on a mountain and makes beautiful quilts. People come from all around trying to buy them, but she sends them away. Her quilts only go to those who need them: the hungry, the poor, the cold. She's stubborn and feisty; nothing will change her mind, even the cruel antics of the king.
The king has been ruling his land with an iron fist, all the while trying to find happiness in the gifts he demands from his subjects. The more gifts he accumulates, the lonelier he feels. He is missing something. Could that something be a quilt?
He visits the quiltmaker one day to get one of the her famed quilts. The quiltmaker makes the king a deal: if he gives away his possessions, she'll make him a quilt. The king, feeling entitled to whatever his heart desires, demands the quilt and tries to take it from her.
Though the king doesn't manage to steal the quilt, he does succeed in stealing the show. As the young king, actor Reed Gaines is perfectly cast. He has the looks and charm of a Disney prince, with a singing voice to match. He pulls the lines off the page and spins them into colorful and keenly-delivered quips and musings that appeal to young and old alike. Amidst a stage of characters who are pretty one-dimensional -- it's an hour-long play for kids, remember? -- the king is by far the most fascinating persona, and Gaines portrays his yin and yang with great skill.
I won't spoil the ending, but let's just say that the king has a lesson to learn, and it's a good lesson for us all. In tune with the show's message is the presence of Linus Project representatives in the lobby before and after each show. Project Linus donates over 400 handmade, brand-new blankets and quilts every month to people who need some warmth and cheer.
Jeff Brumbeau will be attending the 12:30 performance of The Quiltmaker's Gift on Friday, Feb. 22, and he will join the actors on stage afterward for a brief talk. Around 1:45, he'll be in the lobby for a book signing. There are more matinee performances on: Saturday, Feb. 23; Tuesday, Feb. 26; Wednesday, Feb. 27; and Saturday, Mar. 1. Tickets can be purchased online or at the Bartell.