Transforming Charles Dickens’ 350-page/2 dozen-character novel Great Expectations into a musical is an ambitious task, but this is the challenge that book writers Brian VenDer Wilt and Steve Lozier, composer Richard Winzeler, and lyricist Steve Lane have dared to undertake.  Even more challenging is staging it in a 99-seat venue like the Hudson Backstage Theatre.

Great Expectations, as you may recall from your school days, is the tale of Pip, an orphan living with his older sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, who happens upon an escaped convict in a graveyard. Pip brings the escapee something to eat, with consequences that will affect the rest of his life.

Pip’s childhood is also influenced by his relationship with the elderly Miss Havisham, who invites Pip to be the playmate of her haughty adopted daughter Estella.  Unbeknownst to Pip, decades ago Miss Havisham was jilted on her wedding day, and she has raised Estella with one aim in mind, to break men’s hearts.  

Some years later, Pip is visited by London attorney Mr. Jaggers, who informs him that he is to come into property. An anonymous benefactor wishes Pip to be trained to be a gentleman.  These are the young man’s “great expectations.”

The novel, and the musical, follow Pip through his gentleman’s “education,” as we meet a host of characters and eventually learn the connection between the chance meeting in the cemetery and Pip’s altered circumstances.

Great Expectations, The Musical, is the inspiration of now 94-year-old retired Iowa schoolmarm Margaret Hoorneman, whose lifelong dream was to bring Dickens’ novel to the musical stage, and who began the show’s first draft at age 83.  (Co-writer VanDer Wilt is her grandson.)

VanDer Wilt and Lozier’s book manages to compact Dickens’ complicated tale into a two and a half hour show, though familiarity with the novel’s plot will help greatly in following the storyline. Ultimately, this production’s strongest elements are its tuneful songs and its stellar cast.  

Winzeler’s melodies are complex enough to prove interesting and melodic enough to be, as they say, hummable, and Lane’s lyrics work both in and out of the context of the show. Best of the bunch are “Ever The Best Of Friends,” sung by Joe and Young Pip; the title song, sung by the entire cast; and adult Pip’s gorgeous “I Trust My Heart.” (The songs can be heard in their entirety at the show’s website.)

Director Jules Aaron’s experience (over 250 productions, including the excellent recent Cabaret revival) is evident here, and he is blessed by a talented and charismatic cast.  (The understudies’ bios are as packed with credits as are the main casts’.)

Adam Simmons has done fine supporting work in local productions of the musicals Dorian and Barnum. Here, as Pip, he gets the leading role he has been waiting for, and he performs it with charm and a bell-clear tenor.  (The actors are gloriously un-miked.)

Simmons is surrounded by talented performers, including the divine Ellen Crawford as Miss Havisham, having a field day sinking her teeth into the role of the dotty aged spinster in faded bridal rags. Dave Barrus’ Broadway and regional credits make him a fine choice to play the sympathetic Joe Gargery, a role which may never before have had the hunk factor which Barrus brings to it.  Shannon Warne, fresh from Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, does excellent work as the lovely (albeit conceited) Estella, and her performance of “I Could Walk Away” is a showstopper.

This is a production in which the entire cast is worthy of mention.  12-year-old Sterling Beaumon (Young Pip) once again proves himself our most promising future musical theater leading man, Marc Cardiff does fine work as both the escaped con and lawyer Magwich, Britt Flatmo is an adorable Young Biddy, Troy Hussmann is very funny as Young Herbert (especially in his comic fight scene with Young Pip), and Kelsey Smith is suitably stuck-up as Young Estella.  Hap Lawrence, terrific in a quartet of roles, was born to play Dickens character parts.  Brian Maslow and Steve Mazurek have great fun being foppish as Herbert Pocket and Startop.  The cast is completed by the excellent work of beauteous Zarah Mahler (Biddy), Steve Marvel (in three roles), and Sierra Rein, who plays four parts. 

With costumes by Shon LeBlanc, this is a gorgeously dressed production.  Adam Blumenthal’s set makes good use of the Hudson Backstage’s wide but not deep stage, and his lighting is equally effective.  Providing musical backup are dual keyboardists Berkeley Everett and composer Winzeler, and percussionist Jamie Strowbridge, excellent musicians all of them.

If ever there was a 99-seat theater production that cries out for a larger venue, it is Great Expectations.  Two keyboards and a set of drums cannot equal the full orchestrations that Winzeler’s music deserves, and the Hudson’s stage sometimes cramps the actors. Still, large as the cast is (15 in all), an additional few would resolve the occasional confusion caused by having several actors play three or four different roles each.

There is one additional factor that might impact Great Expectations future success in larger theaters and that is its lack of production numbers. (There is no choreographer/choreography.) Think of the musicalization of Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the first thing that comes to mind are the show-stopping “Food Glorious Food,” “Consider Yourself,” and “Who Will Buy.” The closest Great Expectations comes to this is the title tune.  Enthusiastic applause follows many of the songs, and deservedly so.  What would make the show more of a sure thing would be a few numbers that inspire cheers.

That caveat aside, fans of musical theater and Dickens aficionados won’t want to miss this production.  Faithful to its source, tuneful, and beautifully performed, Great Expectations (The Musical) is well worth seeing.

Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
April 12, 2008
Photos: Michael Lamont

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