In 2008, Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar turned their huge brood into a spectacle of sorts on the reality television series 19 Kids and Counting.
It wasn’t so long ago that another real-life family had almost more children than they could count on two hands. Denton Community Theatre brings that popular and well-loved big family to the stage in Cheaper by the Dozen, opening on Friday.
The comedy is based on the real-life Gilbreth brood of New Jersey in the 1920s.
Julie Crawford, former executive director of Denton Community Theatre and current director of the American Association of Community Theatre, returns to direct what she describes as “a memory piece.”
“It really is written that way,” Crawford said. “At the top of every scene, there are two of the grown Gilbreth children remembering what we’re about to see.”
Much of the comedy in the play is found in parents Frank and Lillian Gilbreth applying philosophies of their livelihood — time study and efficiency — onto their family life.
And when Frank Sr. isn’t coaching his children to do the most mundane things (taking a bath or unpacking parcels) as efficiently as possible, the mom and dad are grappling with rearing a family in rapidly changing times. Frank wants his oldest daughter, 16-year-old Anne, to get through her teen years without getting her hair bobbed, wearing lipstick or perfume.
Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and his sister, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, wrote the book Cheaper by the Dozen, which inspired a number of stage and film adaptations. Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy played the patriarch and matriarch (Frank Sr. and Lillian) of the sprawling Gilbreth clan in the 1950 film version. Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt took on the parental roles in an updated version from 2003 and its sequel.
Crawford said auditions brought about 50 people into the Campus Theatre for auditions, “particularly teenage girls,” she said.
In the play, the audience sees nine of the Gilbreth children. There’s a baby “upstairs,” Crawford said, who isn’t seen by the audience. The youngest actor onstage is 6.
Crawford said she guided the performers through the ensemble piece, with Pat Watson in the role of Frank Sr. and Susanne Coffey as Lillian. At the heart of the play, the director said, is the simple value of family.
“They have a happy family,” Crawford said. “The children are all growing up, going through the things all children go through as they grow up. They think they have the strictest father in town, but there is a lot of love. It’s a happy family.”
Because she approached the play as a memory piece, Crawford said the set design suggests a two-story home — but the audience isn’t meant to see “every single wall.”
She credits costume designer Nelda Evarts for doing rafts of research on the play, the era the family lived in and the clothes they would have worn.
The 1920s were more formal. Men wore three-piece suits, women wore fitted skirts, long sleeves and chaste necklines. At the same time, hemlines were creeping upward, women were smoking and cropping their hair, and family size was clipped thanks to growing cities and industry.
“I enjoy working at Denton Community Theatre,” Crawford said. “I’ve been real pleased with the talent that we have. Even the younger ones picked up on the meaning of the lines early on. It’s been a good experience.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN
• What: Denton Community Theatre presents the play Cheaper by the Dozen, adapted by Christopher Sergel from the book by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey.
• When: 7:30 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, Jan. 31 and Feb. 1-2; and 2 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 3
• Where: Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St.
• Details: Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for seniors ages 62 and older, and $10 for students and children. For reservations, call 940-382-1915. Suitable for all ages.
• On the Web: www.dentoncommunitytheatre.com