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updated: 4/11/2014 5:59 AM

Key performances help redeem FVR's 'Cheaper by the Dozen'

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  • Efficiency experts Frank (Michael Dailey, left) and Lillian (Laura Sturm, second from left) apply their productivity theories to their family in "Cheaper by the Dozen," running through May 18 at Fox Valley Repertory in St. Charles. Playing the children are, from left, Kelsey Sante, Josh Greiveldinger, Grace Etzkorn, Rachel Becker, Keaton Jens, Erika Denker, Ewan Parker-Eaton, Nathan Castagna and Keira Denker.

      Efficiency experts Frank (Michael Dailey, left) and Lillian (Laura Sturm, second from left) apply their productivity theories to their family in "Cheaper by the Dozen," running through May 18 at Fox Valley Repertory in St. Charles. Playing the children are, from left, Kelsey Sante, Josh Greiveldinger, Grace Etzkorn, Rachel Becker, Keaton Jens, Erika Denker, Ewan Parker-Eaton, Nathan Castagna and Keira Denker.
    Courtesy of Trademan Photography

  • Gilbreth sisters Anne (Kelsey Sante, left), Martha (Rachel Becker, center) and Ernestine (Grace Etzkorn) gush about boys in Fox Valley Repertory's revival of the family comedy, "Cheaper by the Dozen."

      Gilbreth sisters Anne (Kelsey Sante, left), Martha (Rachel Becker, center) and Ernestine (Grace Etzkorn) gush about boys in Fox Valley Repertory's revival of the family comedy, "Cheaper by the Dozen."
    Photo courtesy of Trademan Photography

  • Video: "Cheaper by the Dozen" clip 1

  • Video: "Cheaper by the Dozen" clip 2

 
 

To clear up any confusion, the only thing Fox Valley Repertory's production of the family comedy "Cheaper by the Dozen" has in common with the 2003 Steve Martin-Bonnie Hunt film is its title, and the number of children to which the title refers.

Fox Valley Rep's version is Christopher Sergel's original adaptation of the 1948 memoir by Frank Gilbreth Jr. and his sister Ernestine Gilbreth Carey about growing up as two of the 12 children of efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth and his psychologist wife Lillian Gilbreth.

Pairing students from FVR's performing arts academy with veterans of Chicago's storefront scene, director Vance Smith delivers a sprightly, well-rehearsed revival of a middling, rather hokey coming-of-age tale which telegraphs its ending almost from the first scene.

Set during the 1920s in a comfy, upper-middle class living room designed by Alan Donahue, "Cheaper by the Dozen" unfolds as a memory play narrated by oldest son Frank Jr. (Josh Greiveldinger) and second oldest daughter Ernestine (Grace Etzkorn). The siblings recall their father (Michael Dailey, as the über-efficient, ever-devoted Frank Gilbreth) adapting the principles he devised to improve workplace efficiency to his family. To that end, Frank Sr. imposes on his precocious brood -- played by nine perky, fresh-scrubbed young actors -- various rules and conditions. That includes installing phonographs in the bathrooms so the children can learn French and German while readying themselves for school.

It seems to be working, until oldest daughter Anne (Kelsey Sante) -- a high school student who has recently discovered silk stockings and boys -- challenges those rules, specifically her father's restrictions on dating. Predictable parent-child clashes ensue, most involving Anne's would-be suitors -- Joe, a rambunctious cheerleader, and the more studious Larry -- both played by Matt Bausone, who memorably played one of the Columbine High School shooters in American Theatre Company's 2013 revival of "columbinus." Genuine and understated, Bausone shows how a committed actor's truthful performance elevates weak material.

The same can be said of Dailey, whose performance reveals the warm heart underneath Frank's gruff shell. The longtime Strawdog Theatre ensemble member brings humor and humanity to a character determined to make every minute count.

Also deserving mention is Stephanie Sullivan. She has a brief cameo as the family's Irish cook. But it's her deliciously suspicious turn as Mrs. Brill -- a performance that recalls Margaret Hamilton's Almira Gulch from "The Wizard of Oz" -- where Sullivan truly shines.

Smith's able direction is especially evident during a fast, funny, family meeting where Frank and his ever-patient wife (played by Laura Sturm) are out-manuevered by their children. The sharpness of the scene, the quickness of the characters' responses, testifies to its careful preparation.

Still, some of the younger cast members -- many of whom are making their professional debuts -- fail to hold for laughs, which in this script amount to little more than chuckles. Ultimately, this production's biggest obstacle is Sergel's script, which Dailey and Bausone's performances, along with those of some enthusiastic newcomers, help redeem.

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