Cheaper by the Dozen seems a perfect fit for a company such as the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre. It's a wholesome family tale - one featuring a large group of children - that suits the theatre's charm, and given playwright Christopher Sergel's endearing script, should easily please patrons.
Helping the matter is seeing Richmond Hill regular Jonathan Grafft tackling the story's central figure of Mr. Gilbreth. As Mr. Gilbreth works to improve his household's efficiency and self-sufficiency before he dies (with Yvonne Siddique playing a gracious, patient Mrs. Gilbreth), the actor balances this efficiency expert's concise nature with his sincere love for his 12 children. While Sergel's allusions to Mr. Gilbreth's impending death play as if the writer thinks he's being coy, the outcome is overly predictable from the outset. Yet director Joseph R. DePauw's staging remains moving even when the expected happens, mostly thanks to Grafft's touching turn and the combined charisma of Cheaper by the Dozen's children.
Though there's a lack of finesse to the kids' performances, that didn't at all ruin my enjoyment of Thursday's show. In part, they're struggling with a weak-ish script that includes too much exposition shared between Ben Klocke's Frank and Elisabeth Grafft's Ernestine after the death of their father. Their conversations bookend the play's larger scenes (rendering those scenes as flashbacks), with Frank and Ernestine fondly remembering their father's efficient idiosyncrasies and the reasoning behind them. But the language written for Frank and Ernestine in these moments is uncharacteristic of children's speech and consequently comes across as insincere - though not for lack of trying on the parts of the amiable Klocke and the politely poised Grafft.
Cheaper by the Dozen's other scenes, however, benefit from the somewhat unpolished quality of the kids' acting. The young performers are intrinsically delightful, but their line deliveries add an even greater adorability factor, which is the main selling point for Richmond Hill's production. They're especially fun to watch as they tease each other and interact in the background when it's not one of their individual turns to speak.
P.J. Hilligoss, in particular, carries the burden of advancing the plot's conflict. As the Gilbreth's oldest girl Anne - who's dressed in perfectly suitable, overly conservative garb by costumer Suzanne DeReu - her headstrong independence threatens to negatively impact Mr. Gilbreth's plans to get his family in order before his demise. The two tussle over her desire to wear silk stockings and go on dates with boys on school nights, and while Hilligoss' earnestness seems forced at times, the actor also delivers some beautifully tender moments as she grows to understand her father's situation. Her defiance is consistently nuanced, with a layer of learned respect keeping her in check despite Anne's demand for more freedom.
Mollie A. Schmelzer offers another level of conflict as Miss Brill, the inflexible teacher assigned to test the Gilbreth children, each of whom has skipped a grade here or there. Schmelzer's take on the character is a bit on the extreme side, but she's so committed to Miss Brill's strict, shrill wickedness that Schmelzer ends up being a fun-to-hate villain.
In truth, there weren't a lot of big laughs from Thursday's audience. However, Richmond Hill's Cheaper by the Dozen did elicit many a smile, and while this quaint, heartfelt family tale may not thrill, it did delight me and my partner's 11-year-old daughter quite a bit.
Cheaper by the Dozen runs at the Richmond ill Barn Theatre (600 HK Robinson Drive, Geneseo) through November 16, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)944-2244 or visiting RHPlayers.com.