In 1868, Louisa May Alcott introduced the world to “The March Sisters”: Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy–a quartet of Lion-hearted Lambs, whose family name shares that of this third month renowned for its own brand of rambunctiousness. Now, just in time to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of its first publishing, “The Morgan-Wixson Theatre” in Santa Monica California is presenting “Little Women”—the Tony nominated stage musical based on Alcott’s beloved classic novel of the same name.
Featuring a book by Allan Knee, with music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, this new production is directed by Anne Gesling, with choreography by Krystal Combs, and Musical Direction by Daniel Koh. Boasting a bevy of splendid performances and brimming with lots of catchy tunes (—quite a few genuinely moving,) Howland and Dickstein’s score offers one rousing number after another, while Knee’s book hits on all the most memorable “chapters” from this cherished and time-tested story with the best moments often being those that sneak up on you. Real charm is a rare commodity these days—particularly on the stage, and this piece has it in spades, while never becoming maudlin or mawkish. Instead, it’s life-affirming and spirit-lifting, as well as being very entertaining, and Gesling’s direction plays on all of these strengths. Although a relatively small-cast for a musical, aiding her immensely are the very talented performers who form a tight ensemble where all their disparate elements, and what they each offer fit admirably into the even greater ‘whole’ that is this show. Indeed, this new production at “The Morgan-Wixson Theatre” could practically define the term “Handsome”, and we’re told that Gesling’s main aim as Director was to find, furnish, and explore the ‘truth” in Alcott’s iconic story and characters, and in this regard she and everyone involved have succeeded wonderfully!
The story truly begins in a drawing-room of a boarding house in Old New York, where the now grown “Josephine March” (or “Jo” for short) is attempting to enthrall her fellow tenant, “Professor Bhaer” with her latest opus—which comes alive and is acted out even as she narrates it. Underwhelmed, “The Professor” then advises her to stick with writing about what she knows such as her life with her sisters and their beloved “Marmee” growing up in Concord, Mass. Flashback then to those days—Christmas of 1862 to be exact. The country is at “Civil” War and their father has been called away to serve as an Army Chaplain, while there in the attic of their modest home, with little money, it looks like it’s going to be a bleak yuletide; Nonetheless, being an aspiring writer, “Jo” promises to write them an exciting play to perform which will raise their collective morale: “This Christmas will exceed our finest dreams” she assures everyone. Once we get to meet the girls in this, their prefatory number which follows, (called not surprisingly “Our Finest Dreams”,) the quartet engage in some inspiring four-part harmony, which, besides ranking as a worthy opening, is also a picture-perfect introduction to each of them! While full-cast endeavors are fairly few here, the sisters do come together again after the neighbor boy “Laurie Laurence” rescues little sister ‘Amy” from falling through the ice, as they make him their ‘honorary brother’ while swearing undying loyalty to one another with the buoyant “Five Of Us Forever”.
Admittedly, holding more plaintive moments than the first, Act Two picks up back in New York as “Jo” (seen again as grown and looking back,) dreams of working for “The Weekly Volcano Press”–a rollicking post-intermission episode involving the entire company which has our “Jo” once more beguiling her professorial pal with the tale she has just sold to the aforementioned publication, that is then ‘acted out’ by familiar members of the cast playing all of the phantastic ‘dramatis personae” who populate it. It’s an awesome group triumph and an incredibly imaginative way to launch the second half.
Starring as these spunky siblings, Alicia Reynolds-Luoma leads the way as “Jo March”–the aspiring writer through whom all the events unfold and are reflected. Christopher Columbus! Did they ever choose the right actress to take us on this journey—and allow no doubt: she keeps us gladly right there with her every step of the way! Gifted with a strong and expressive voice, she demonstrates this right off with the wistful, “Better” as Jo, now trying to make her way in the bustling city reflects “Things were better when I was home”. Then there’s the incident as “Jo” prepares for her very first formal Ball—having to attend with a patched dress. “Alarming or alluring”, she protests “I’m not built for gowns!” This leads to one of the more lively numbers with “I’d Be Delighted” (–which, apropos of its name absolutely is a delightful exploit for all involved–) as “Marmee” tries to prepare her daughters for what they might expect once there –and just as important, how they, themselves should behave. Next, in her forceful declamation which rings down Act One, entitled “Astonishing”, Ms. Luoma gives us a feisty and oh, so compelling manifesto-in-song, wherein “Jo” starts at last to re-assess her life, and what she wants out of: “I may be small but I have Giant Plans” she exults. Potent and dynamic, it is still another winning example of this Actress’s prodigious capabilities and as such is exceptionally well-played and sung. Just as refreshing is Zoë D’Andrea’s take on the winsome “Beth March”, (arguably the most-centered of the March siblings,) which she keeps captivatingly honest and real. Far too often, this character has been played as overly delicate or mild right from the start—more of a shadow than a real person which lessens the impact of her eventually death (How can they miss someone who was basically never ‘there’ in the first place?!) Happily, Ms. D’Andrea gives us an authentic ‘girl’, with dreams of her own and a sense of fun and adventure, who’s every bit as involved in life as her sisters are. Hence, when she does take ill and passes, it’s all the more heartbreaking. She sincerely is ‘someone’ to be missed. Prior to that though, Zoë has plenty of chances to impress—and impress she surely does, as in the bubbly “Off To Massachusetts”. At first hearing, this sounds like a sort of elementary piano student’s exercise with the lyrics that are simple, but still witty and sharp; later though, when “Beth” plays it again on the piano that neighbor “Mr. Laurence” has suddenly surprised her with as a gift, it’s still as blithe and pleasant enough (melodically speaking,) but the circumstances now surrounding it are weightier and far more affecting, which just might bring a tear or two to your eyes. D’Andrea also excels with the touching “Some Things Are Meant To Be” which, in effect, is her way of saying goodbye to her sister “Jo”: “Some things will never die, the promise of who you are, the memories when I am far from you. All my life, I’ve lived for loving you…let me go now.”
Also remarkable in her own right is Amanda Greig as the oldest (and most romantically minded) sister, “Meg March”-standing out in a role that is too-easily overlooked or marginalized. Instead, she manages to exude quiet dignity and grace with every scene. Attending the ball with her sister, even with a patch on her dress the gangly “Jo” has her old pal “Laurie” to show her the ropes, but it’s also there that he introduces “Meg” to his tutor, “John Brooke” the man who will be the love of her life, as the pair are immediately smitten with one another. This gives rise their shared intermezzo, “More Than I Am”—a lovely and lyrical chanson, loaded with the kinds of affectionate sentiments countless ladies yearn for their men to serenade them with: “If you will wait when I am gone—if you’ll imagine me here with you, if only you’ll care if I carry on, then I could be strong…I could be brave, I could be more—more than I am.” Amy Coles also gets her share of laughs and in some respects, even admiration, as the diminutive but mighty “Amy March”–the family artist and the most impetuous of the sisters. She takes center-stage on several occasions–practically by frenetic force-of-will, the way only the littlest sister can, first with her enthusiastic contribution to “Our Finest Dreams”, then shortly thereafter supporting “Delighted” as her sisters prepare for their big night out. However, perhaps more than any other character, hers is the one who experiences the most growth as our “Amy” matures into a genteel young woman of taste and sophistication (having gone off with “Aunt March” to Europe in place of “Jo”.) To top it off, when she returns we find that she’s gotten engaged, prompting a giddy rapid-fire duet with her unanticipated intended, titled “The Most Amazing Thing”. Moreover, as their much-adored ‘Materfamilias’, “Marmee”, Janet Krajeski radiates the type of quiet strength and understanding the part so crucially requires. She also has an acuity for phrasing her numbers with just the right amount of intensity so as to get their emotional veracities across without pressing, or over-playing them. This is what makes her so unforgettable in this role especially. Commencing with “Marmee’s” letter to her husband who is off at war, titled “Here Alone”, Krajeski gives us a stirring and sweet-sounding interlude while providing us nice insight into the inner-strength this woman possesses. Through it all she doesn’t wring a false intonation or emotion in its delivery: “I don’t know which part is harder, what I know or what’s unknown” she sings; “or raising ‘Little Women’ when I’m here alone.” It’s an affecting but very real and identifiable highlight, and one of the best the show can proudly claim. Then, she does it all over again in the second act with her part in “Marmee’s” riveting and eloquent 11 O’Clock refrain, “Days Of Plenty”, which is most assuredly worth waiting for, serving as the crowning glory to an already glorious portrayal.
Then there are the Men in these “Little Women’s” lives: Chief among them, Christopher P. Tiernan as the girl’s ‘Honorary Brother’, “Theodore Laurence III” (but everybody calls him “Laurie” he explains.) And oh, what an impressive voice does this young man possess! This he handily verifies at the outset with his part as the heroic “Rodrigo” amidst “Jo’s” preliminary narration of her “Operatic Tragedy”, giving us a scant taste of his deeper vocal acumen; afterwards (and to superlatively satisfying results) joining with Ms. Luoma, the two enliven “Take A Chance On Me”—a thoroughly likable undertaking as “Laurie” bids “Jo” to dance with him despite her reticence. Not only does it give rise to a short but congenial dance break, but the song itself also shows off Tiernan’s Gold-Medal voice thrillingly–so much so, that by the time their final cadences have sounded, this one ranks a definite first act crowd-pleaser! Subsequently, his reprise as “Laurie”, about to be sent away to college, clumsily proposes marriage to “Jo”, allows still another vibrant turn for him as well. Meanwhile, making the most of his time on stage, Larry Gesling himself does an outstanding job as “Mr. Laurence”–Laurie’s stern, overbearing, Grandfather and (at least initially) a ‘less than neighborly” Neighbor to the March family. In what could similarly be considered an otherwise thankless role, instead, Gesling commendably makes a substantial contribution to the overall goings-on.
“He’s really not as horrible as we imagined,” Beth tells the others after her abrupt encounter with the man the girls are contented to think of as an ogre. Bringing out his kinder, gentler side, “Beth” and “Mr. Laurence” team together for the jovial “Off To Massachusetts”, which eventually even spurs him to bequeath to her his superior, but sadly under-used piano. Notable as well is Daniel Koh who, in addition to serving as the show’s Musical Director, also offers valorous support as a performer appearing as “John Brooke”, Laurie’s tutor and “a scholar from Boston” the lad informs them (“It’s Maine actually,” he shyly tells Meg upon their meeting.) Koh has a terrific and dramatic vocal styling himself, which he fully invests into the tender “More Than I Am”; then just as creditably, he lends his talents to the reprise of “Off To Massachusetts”. Aric Martin also does a stupendous job in the decidedly tricky role of “Professor Fritz Bhaer”. Save a brief introduction at the show’s very beginning, he doesn’t come into his own until after intermission, but then he develops into a very significant part of our main Heroine’s life. Act Two is also when we discover exactly how rich and magnificent a voice Mr. Martin is also in command of–first with his sung ‘letter’ to Jo, “How I Am” (in which this esteemed and learned ‘Professor’, devolves into a bemused and under-confident school-boy as he attempts to convey his depth of feeling for her, and how much he misses their times together.) The tune also affords Martin a few dazzling ‘money notes by its finish, making it yet another A-Plus—and equally surprising—inclusion to the score! Shortly following, he and Ms. Luoma croon to one another the amorous and engaging, “Umbrella In The Rain” that sees the pair at last declaring their mutual love, and making plans for their life together—even as they humorously contradict one another like any old ‘married couple’.
Furthermore, in a bold move, stodgy “Aunt March”—the overbearing and cantankerous family Matriarch is played by Mr. Raymond Zachary. That said, forget anything shocking or salacious–he’s utterly believable in his role with no sense of Burlesque or outrageousness whatsoever, unlike one might expect from such a casting choice. In fact, it’s the very realism he exhibits here that make his interpretation so fascinating–and even astounding, as he plays the ‘old gal’ straight-up (–and is nothing short of extraordinary for it!) What’s more, it’s “Aunt March” who arguably gets all the best lines” throughout, even when it comes to the very lyrics she carols. Such is the case with “Could You”–the duet “Aunt M” shares with “Jo” (who hopes to soon accompany the aging Dowager to Europe.) In it, ‘Mme. March’ chides the headstrong girl: “We earn our dreams in this world!” before she insists that her ‘imprudent’ niece, “Change completely or don’t waste my time—gracious living will make you sublime!” It figures then, that their shared work in “Could You” literally in places, ascends to near-operatic–strikingly showcasing both performer’s incredible voices! But when “Jo” cuts and sells her hair to raise money so that “Marmee” may travel to Washington D.C. to be with their father who has taken ill, her efforts are instead met with scorn from the old woman. “Cutting your hair and selling it like a beggar is not an option for a lady!” she scolds, essentially dashing the girl’s hopes once and for all concerning their trip to “The Continent”. Toward the show’s finale, “Aunt March” does inform “Jo” though, that she plans on leaving her magnificent, if imposing, manor house to her: “Do something with it,” She directs; “Make it a library—or a school” (which her niece of course, eventually will…but then, for anyone who knows their American Literature, that is another story and Alcott book entirely!) Preceding this, Zachary also shines—and garners some tremendous laughs, during the fantasy sequence staged as part of “The Weekly Volcano Press” production number–this time as a decidedly “Yiddish” old hag!
Over and above the exhilarating performances, it’s the technical elements that go a long way in making this production so elegant: Making grand use of Hoop-skirts, Ball gowns (in just about every color,) Velvet vests and Riding coats, along with a fabric-store’s worth of Gingham, the costumes, also by Anne Gesling, never strike a wrong chord and efficaciously conjure the times, social standings, and even (in places,) the sheer temperament of those wearing them. Likewise, the Set Design by Tristan Griffin is unpretentious but resourceful and effective, amounting to just a few set-pieces here and there, (with maybe a widow frame flown-in now and again,) but combined, they encompass the attic and front parlour of a humble Concorde cottage, the sitting room of a New York Boarding establishment, a Victorian Atrium, lush Gardens, a New England beach and even a deep dark forest for the whimsical ‘Operatic Tragedy’ sequence. Distinguished as well is the Lighting Design by William Wilday. Largely evident through the illumination of the back scrim in a wide-range of slyly mood-suggesting hues, here is where Wilday’s real virtuosity lies. Take for instance the way it cleverly fades into a faint shade of reddish pink such as one would find only on an antique “Valentine”, when “John”, having enlisted in the Union Army, sings his poignant farewell to Meg; while on another occasion it placidly transforms into a unique blend of grey-blue seldom found apart from a comparably old-fashioned cameo brooch.
“The most amazing thing” is here—so make your ‘first-round draft-picks’ the “March Mademoiselles” of “Little Women”! Having opened on Saturday, March 17th, the musical is slated to play through Sunday, April 14th, 2018 at “The Morgan-Wixson Theatre”, located at: 2627 Pico Boulevard, in Santa Monica California. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM with Sundays Matinees at 2:00 PM. Special “Talk-Backs” with the cast and crew will be held immediately following performances on Friday evening, March 23rd and Sunday, April 1st. Reserved Seating and Tickets are available on-line by visiting: http://www.morgan-wixson.org , by phone at 310-828-7519 or by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org .
Production Photos By Joel D. Castro Photography & Miriam Billington, Courtesy Of Miriam Billington And “The Morgan-Wixson Theatre”. Special Thanks To Miriam Billington, Anne Gesling, Meredith Wright, Daniel Koh, Krystal Combs And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Morgan-Wixson Theatre’s” 2018 Production Of “Little Women: The Musical” For Making This Story Possible.