Great Expectations (The Musical) began its Los Angeles journey back in April with a successful run at the Hudson Backstage Theatre. It has reopened at West L.A.’s The Odyssey Theatre, and what a difference a few months and a change of venue have made.  A show that was more promising than great has blossomed.

First of all, at The Odyssey the show looks like a million bucks, no longer seeming cramped, and there are no more blocked sightlines. Adam Blumenthal’s set seems bigger and his lighting richer.  The cast has grown by three with new members adding their stamps to classic Dickens roles.  Most significant are the contributions of choreographer Kay Cole to a production which was choreography free.

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.  Book writers Brian VenDer Wilt (Hoorneman’s grandson) and Steve Lozier, composer Richard Winzeler, and lyricist Steve Lane have completed Hoorneman’s work, transforming Charles Dickens’ 350-page/2 dozen-character novel Great Expectations into a now finely polished jewel of a musical.

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. Most importantly, Great Expectations (The Musical) is blessed with tuneful songs and a 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; “The World To Me,” an absolutely lovely duet between adult Biddy and Pip, and adult Pip’s gorgeous “I Trust My Heart.” (The songs can be heard in their entirety at

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, Barnum, and Mental The Musical and recently proved his leading man chops in The Fix.  Returning from the original cast as Pip, Simmons continues to perform the role 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, a performance that has grown more powerful and colorful over the past four months.

Newcomers Robert Arbogast as Joe Gargery and Annie Abrams as Estella also do fine work at the Odyssey. Arbogast creates a strong and sympathetic Joe, though vocally he is not quite as strong as Dave Barrus (currently starring in Songs From An Unmade Bed). Likewise Annie Abrams does not quite have the pipes of Shannon Warne, but she perfectly embodies the icy blonde beauty that is Estella.

This is a production in which the entire cast is worthy of mention.  Troy Hussman, young Herbert in the original production, has taken over the role of young Pip, and he is excellent. Understudy JJ Benet is adorable as Young Herbert (especially in his comic fight scene with Young Pip), and Kelsey Smith continues in her just right performance stuck-up as Young Estella.  Hap Lawrence, terrific in a trio of roles, was born to play Dickens character parts, and it is a joy to see how his performance has become even more colorful since April. Brian Maslow and Steve Mazurek continue having great fun being foppish as Herbert Pocket and Startop. The lovely Zarah Mahler still enchants as Biddy.

A big improvement now is dividing the roles of Magwich, the escaped criminal and Jaggers, the lawyer who informs Pip of his good fortune and great expectations, between two actors.  The roles are in fine hands with Dan Woren and David Kirk Grant handling them respectively. Tricia Kelly plays Mrs. Joe, young Miss Havisham, and Clara, and has the production’s strongest female voice which she displays in the powerful “Her Wedding Day.”

The fine cast is completed by Asunta Fleming as Molly, understudy Kailey Swanson as Young Biddy, and understudy Fred Pinto as Drummle, Compeyson, and Vicar.

With costumes by Shon LeBlanc, this is a gorgeously dressed production, and seems even more so in its new surroundings.  Continuing to provide musical backup are dual keyboardists Berkeley Everett and composer Winzeler, and percussionist Jamie Strowbridge, excellent musicians all of them.

Besides increasing the cast size from 15 to 18 (a suggestion made in StageSceneLA’s original review), another of our suggestions appears to have been taken to notable effect.

Choreographer Kay Cole (from the original cast of Broadway’s A Chorus Line) has joined the production (though perhaps “musical staging by Kay Cole” would be a more appropriate term than “choreography by”).  The title song now bounces with movement and pizzazz, and Miss Havisham’s “Love Her” gains new power by featuring a pair of ballroom dancing couples like figures atop a music box. Though Great Expectations will never lend itself to showstopping production numbers like Dickens’ Oliver, it is a far stronger production now with Cole adding her special touches.

It’s rare that I get the chance to review a production a second time.  I feel fortunate to have revisited Great Expectations in its much improved reincarnation. This time, it deserves and gets a WOW!

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
July 31, 2008
Photo: Michael Lamont

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