Fran Powers’ Raising Twelve On A Nickel And A Prayer is a Norman Rockwell painting of a play: heartwarming, old-fashioned, existing in some simple, apple-pie version of the past before Freud, Marx, Nietzsche or Simone de Beauvoir. Because the production at Tampa’s Powerstories Theatre is so often amateurish, the flaws in the play’s conception are troublingly prominent, and it’s hard just to sit back and enjoy the musical’s finer points. Those points are worth noting: at least one fine performance, a stageful of lovable child actors, a warming thumbs-up to religious faith, and an occasionally candid portrait of the pain suffered by the poor in capitalist America. But then there are those weaknesses: in the acting (too often of unprofessional quality), the writing (not one complex character anywhere in the vicinity), and the singing (spotty, with a few exceptions). Because Raising Twelve is so brightly sincere, I feel like the unredeemed Scrooge when I point out its failings. So let me put it this way: If you’re mad about kids, Santa Claus, and Currier and Ives prints; if the history of modern drama (Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht, etc.) is of no importance to you whatsoever; and if the image of Woman that you cherish hovers somewhere between the kitchen and the maternity ward; then this play is for you. If not: be very careful. If you’re not related by blood to any of the many cast members, you may not be persuaded.
When Raising Twelve begins, we meet waitress Betty (Lisa Negron), a divorced mother of two, and Harold (Omar Negron), a sailor who’s immediately taken by her beauty. With some encouragement from a buddy (Devan Kelty), Harold puts the moves on this apparition, and soon learns her deal-breaking conditions: She’ll only marry a man who’ll give her 10 more children for a total of 12. Why she wants this high number is never convincingly explained, and whether she’s conscious that she’s effectively planning a life of poverty for her brood is also unexamined. But Harold, not fully understanding what he’s bargaining for, accepts Betty’s terms, they get married and one at a time, the stage grows more populous. There are some crises along the way: Once there are six little mouths to feed, financially challenged Harold has a meltdown, and at least one of Betty’s latest pregnancies threatens her health. Then there are all the troubles about not having enough money; these are the most moving parts of the play, in spite of the temptation to tell prolific Harold and Betty, well, what did you expect? Of the eight actors playing the kids, only two struck me as already stage-worthy: Faith House, who as Mary has real verve and a believable stubborn streak, and Ellie Papataros, who as Fran is an impish, amusing presence. The other kid actors are, of course, lovable even when they’re not ready for Broadway, and the several actors in minor parts are adequate if not memorable.
But the keys to the production are the two leads, Betty and Harold. Lisa Negron as Betty is a luminous matriarch, so convincingly committed to faith, love, and charity, you can’t help but find her angelic, Betty Friedan or no Betty Friedan. Her singing voice is lovely, and her moments of doubt are particularly well-played. Her performance is so winning, in fact, that one can almost forgive her for the hard times her dream virtually forces upon her family. As husband Harold, Omar Negron is not quite as successful. He’s likable in an elemental way, but there doesn’t seem to be much going on between his ears, and his singing voice isn’t big enough even for the small Powerhouse auditorium. The play’s music and lyrics by Terez Hartmann are catchy enough in a familiar TV-ish way, and the uncredited set, representing the Taylor home and a few other locales, is actually visually charming. Even with eight kids on stage, the venue seemed capacious.
I suppose you could call Raising Twelve an escapist entertainment: It turns the spotlight away from all the complications of modern life in favor of a simpler idea of what women and men want. But I’m not satisfied. I would bet that Fran Powers’ parents, on whom Betty and Harold are based, were far more complex than anything in this production, and that even Norman Rockwell was buffeted by his unconscious. After the humanity portrayed by Tracy Letts and Paula Vogel and Suzan Lori-Parks and Tony Kushner, what is one to do with these adorable doll-figures?
Hug ‘em, I guess.