Christopher Columbus! Have you heard the latest about those “March Girls”? Anyone who’s ever taken a High School English Lit. Class or spent any time browsing “Turner Classic Movies” are familiar with them: rambunctious and outspoken “Jo” (short for “Josephine”) who yearns to be a ‘World-class Writer’; her eldest sister, the romantic and dreamy-eyed “Margaret” (better known as “Meg”); the delicate but unfailingly kind, “Beth”, and the high-spirited youngest, “Amy”. Now, “The Chance Theater” in Anaheim, California is giving audiences the prime chance to get re-acquainted with them all as they inaugurate their “Holiday Series” with an encore production of “Little Women—The Broadway Musical”. Based on the 1869 semi-autobiographical novel by Louisa May Alcott, for countless reasons her timeless tale holds a special place in the heart of classic Americana, and this 2005 musical adaptation reinforces every one of its endearing lessons of warmth and earnest feelings one should expect from the holiday season.
Filled with unforgettable characters and situations that are, at turns, both funny and affecting, this new production at “The Chance” is a complete joy for all ages. Featuring a book by Allan Knee with lyrics by Mindi Dickstein and music by Jason Howland, the direction here is by “The Chance Theater’s” own Managing Director, Casey Long with Associate Director, Sara Figoten Wilson. Dickstein’s lyrics run the savory gamut of sweet and sincere to sharp and insightful, and are terrifically matched by Howland’s lilting melodies. The entire story is played against Masako Tobaru’s over-sized ‘story book’ sets, thus allowing the action to virtually spring from their pages. This illusion is also aided immensely via the use of rear screen projections (also designed by Casey Long) which help set the times and places, and one gets the distinct impression that many of the illustrations employed may be authentically taken from the original book itself. Moreover, the costumes by Erika C. Miller, also stylishly aid in setting the times–and just as importantly, the growing maturity and changing lots of those depicted.
Told in flashback, we find “Jo March”, now grown and living in New York City, before returning to a simpler time—December 24th to be exact, in the year 1863, and her childhood home in Concord Massachusetts. “It’s going to be a dismal Christmas” Amy pouts, “what with father away and no money for presents.” “When have we ever let anything defeat us?” Jo then assures her sisters; “Years from now people will talk about us: ‘One Christmas Eve, four penniless and ragged sisters put on an Operatic Tragedy for all of Concord!” she proclaims, trying to bolster their courage through what could be a rather gloomy holiday. “This Christmas will exceed our finest dreams” they boldly concur. Under the watchful eye of their beloved ‘Marmee’, who valiantly holds the family together while their Minister father is away serving as an Army Chaplin during the Civil War, the four embark on a tender coming-of-age tale filled with drama, romance, frequent humor–and of course, with this retelling, plenty of songs and dynamic dances! Staying true to the various episodes and events of the classic that inspired it, along the way we feel the pain of their disappointments, the pleasure of their accomplishments, and even experience their occasions of unexpected gallantry–such as when news of their father’s illness compels Marmee to head to Washington DC where he’s being treated, Jo goes out and cuts her hair (something ‘respectable” young women just did not do at the time) then sells it to obtain money for her mother’s train ticket.
Many instances of lively choreography by Jessie McLean also arise, as well as moments of breathtaking swordsmanship choreographed by David McCormick and Associate Fight-Choreographer Aaron McGee. One such terpsichorean interlude is “I’d Be Delighted” as Jo and Meg become two ‘Cinderellas’ preparing for their very first ball that sees them ‘rehearsing’ how to behave. It’s a fun, light-hearted situation that every young person who has ever gone to a dance can likely relate to. Another, “Take A Chance On Me”, occurs once they’ve arrived and it becomes very apparent that Jo has young male friend and soon-to-be-confidant, “Laurie” utterly beguiled: “What is it with you and that smile?!” she asks him; “You make me beam” he replies smartly. “Well, you look ridiculous!” she retorts. Subsequently, having gained ‘acceptance’ into their little group, he is the centerpiece of “Five Forever’–a rousing group endeavor which too, features a nice bit of choreography, as the girl’s name him their unofficial “Brother”. Act Two also has its share of grand and gregarious movement picking up with Jo back in New York, where she’s vowed to become a “Publishing Lioness”, having even managed to sell one of her stories to “The Weekly Volcano Press”. This quickly evolves into a full-on production number, where that “Operatic Tragedy” she referred to earlier, is at last fully played out, with Jo describing the melodramatic story to her new colleague “Professor Bhaer”. With each new detail, the cast appear and act out her fanciful saga of trolls, a fair damsel in distress, and her “swishing and swooshing,” swashbuckling hero, all furiously leading up to a wholly unforeseen ending. (All-in-all, it’s a pretty nifty way to launch the second act!)
Ashley Arlene Nelson (so stunning in “The Chance’s” regional premiere of the musical “Dog Fight”) is remarkable as “Jo”. Through her the action unfolds and as such, she carries much of the show. It’s exhilarating to see an actress of her proven capabilities in a role like this that suits them all so well, and her inherent likeability and way with a ‘throw-away’ gag-line, keeps much of Jo’s sardonic humor from coming off as dour. She also brings a nice element of vehemence when required too. Her initial indignant interjections in “Better” are indeed worthy of any burgeoning writer protective of their work, not to mention a fantastic way to kick things off, when her colleague, “Professor Bhaer” has expressed a disconcerting opinion regarding “all the violence and seduction on every page” of her recently completed manuscript. “Miss March, I spoke my mind as you have spoken yours. Obviously it was not appreciated on either side,” he observes passively; “Each thrilling page is who I am!” she then declares defensively, adding “My stories were a great success in Concord!” Shortly thereafter, as she prepares for the Ball, her mother tells her “You look very alluring”; “I think the word is ‘Alarming’, Marmee” she replies. However, her Act One declaration “Astonishing” which closes the act, truly is ‘astonishing”, as Jo starts to realize that life isn’t always what you plan. Lamenting “How could I be so wrong?!” she soon rallies with the same grit and determination of the indomitable protagonists she writes about, roaring “Here I go and there’s no turning back! I may be small but I’ve got giant plans!” Once more underscoring the strength and pithy observations cached in Dickstein’s lyrics, it’s a powerful moment and Nelson shines with it as Jo vows in the end “to be astonishing at last!”
Laura M. Hathaway too, stands out wonderfully as “Meg”. In many ways, a potentially thankless role, instead, she triumphantly invests her character with genteel qualities many in the audience may very well secretly wish they had. Chief among them are her quiet optimism and willingness to find romance in the seemingly most mundane situations. Hathaway also has a potent voice to behold, and together with Stefan Miller as her suitor-turned-fiancée, “John Brooke”, their stirring duet, “More Than I Am” is an elegant showcase for both their singing talents. Emma Nossal also proves that in the right cases, less can be infinitely more, in her gentle but impressive portrayal of “Beth”. Her impromptu piano ‘exercise’ “Off To Massachusetts”, with Glen Koppel as the March family’s heretofore ‘stodgy’ neighbor, “Mr. Laurence”, is buoyant, enterprisingly staged and still another highlight the first act can lay claim to. Its reprise, when Mr. Laurence gives his piano to Beth as a gift, is even somewhat poignant for such a bouncy little ditty. Just as bittersweet is her pairing with Jo, “Some Things Are Meant To Be”. One more genuinely remarkable melding of words and music, here it’s as sumptuously sung as it deserves to be by both Nossal and Nelson, each demonstrating amazing harmony in the process. Meanwhile, “Amy” is actually played by two actresses; on opening night young Olivia Knox played Amy as a child—a role she shares during the run with Alea Jordan; while Angela Griswold—herself no stranger to audiences at “The Chance”, assays the role of Amy at a (slightly) older and more refined age. “I hope one day I can be sweet like you,” younger Amy tells Beth who has loaned her ice skates. Immediately after, when “Laurie” saves Amy, who has fallen through the ice while skating, offers perceptive viewers a clever dose of ‘foreshadowing’ of future plot-twists as well.
As “Marmee”, Rachel Oliveros Catalano effectively presents a soft-spoken, serene tower of inner-strength (“We March women are invincible” she reminds her daughters early on.) Her solo, “Here Alone” performed as she writes a letter to her husband off at war could practically define the term “Charming”; delivered humbly, (though resolutely) this consequently increases its dramatic impact. Later, her equally introspective and thoroughly touching “Days Of Plenty”, wherein Marmee imparts a little of life’s wisdom to Jo, as her daughter tries to bid farewell to “Beth” and the pain of her passing, is one of those rare and beautiful theatrical moments in this or any other season. In addition, it superbly calls attention to a number of the voluminous truths this show possesses. Sherry Domerego is also spot-on as the family’s wealthy, autocratic spinster “Aunt March”. Hers is an incredible–and appropriately imperious–gem of a character role and Domerego definitely makes the most of every second on stage, brilliantly giving us a woman very much of her time and social standing. Her musical declaration “Could You”, during which she confronts Jo about her ‘rough around the edges” ‘un-ladylike’ style, is filled with awesome bravura. “We earn our dreams in this world!” she scolds at one point, reproaching her, “there are many pitfalls a girl can fall into, and Josephine, you are headed for every one!” This, before turning around and tantalizing the lass with the further thought that epitomizes the elder woman’s life philosophy: “Gracious living will make you sublime.”
Then there are ‘the men in these not-so-little girl’s lives’, including Jimmy Saiz as the sisters’ neighbor, friend, (and eventually, one’s husband,) “Laurie Laurence” (aka “Theodore Laurence III”.) With just the right shades of awkwardness and exuberance, Saiz furnishes an outstandingly genial stage-presence as every gals’ “dream boy” (if only Jo could see it.) He also has a humongous voice—quite literally hitting all the right notes, and easily winning the audiences’ admiration. This he does straightaway starting with “Take A Chance On Me”–a big, vibrant exclamation point in the midst of all the action, where he cajoles Jo, “We could be such friends.” Their ensuing ‘dance’ interlude (or should that be ‘boxing match’) is a bona fide crowd-pleaser too. Before the act closes though, he strikes gold again with its reprise—this time fashioned as a maladroit but still achingly guileless marriage proposal to Jo, which she brusquely refuses. Post-intermission, when Amy returns from a lengthy visit abroad with “Aunt March”, his dual descant with her, “The Most Amazing Thing” is a jovial mood raiser precisely when its most needed, which has this pair of incipient ‘love birds’ feverishly finishing each other’s sentences with sensational comic results: “It’s amazing what time could do/From that moment my heart flew/We’ll be married in the spring/Who ever thought in all the world we’d fall in love, and yet we did…it was the most amazing thing.” Also supplying fine support is Nicholas Thurkettle as “Professor Bhaer”. At first a more ‘periphery” character, he will come to play a far more substantial role in Jo’s life, and Thurkettle adeptly ‘under plays” much of his earlier scenes making his eventual resurgence into Jo’s life all the more pleasant, welcome, and gratifying. His vocalized soliloquy, “How I Am” (also sung as a “letter” to our heroine in which we hear his true, deeper, feelings for her) is riveting, and certainly worth waiting for, as this stolid, stoic man becomes a giddy school boy right before our eyes. Afterward, his lighter vocal treatment of their 11 O’clock duo, “A Small Umbrella In The Rain” suits the song particularly well, and is gleefully loaded with significance as this pair, who are obviously meant to be together, at long last admit their affection for one another, while playfully persisting to dicker over every last detail of their pending relationship: “We are as different as the morning and the night” he asserts; “No, we are as different as the winter and the spring!” she counters teasingly.
So pay a visit this holiday season to your old friends the “March” clan, with “Little Women–The Broadway Musical” (just don’t be too surprised if you wind up cheering wildly in spite of yourself –how can you not?!) After previewing from November 25th through December 2nd, “Little Women” officially opened on Saturday, December 3rd, where it is slated to run through Sunday December 23rd, 2016 at “The Chance Theater” @ “The Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center”, located at 5522 E. La Palma Avenue in Anaheim, California. Showtimes are Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sunday afternoons at 3:00 pm, with a Special added performance on Wednesday, December 7th, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available by calling (888) 455-4212 or on-line by logging onto: www.ChanceTheater.com .
Production Photos by Doug Catiller at “True Image Studio” (www.trueimagestudio.com) Courtesy Of “The Chance Theater”; Special Thanks To Casey Long, Sara Figoten Wilson, Jessie McLean, David McCormick, Aaron McGee And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chance Theater’s” 2016 Production Of “Little Women—The Broadway Musical” For Making This Story Possible.