There’s scarcely a girl or woman alive who hasn’t at one time read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Add to that the millions who’ve seen at least one of its filmings, whether 1933’s with Katharine Hepburn as Jo, or 1949’s with June Allyson, or 1994’s with Winona Ryder, and you have a built-in audience for Little Women The Musical.  L.A.’s Lyric Theatre scales down the Broadway production to 99-seat theater dimensions (a full orchestra becomes a single piano here), the more intimate setting providing a particularly appropriate fit for Alcott’s family tale.  A quartet of talented recent musical theater grads bring the four March sisters to vibrant life, surrounded by an all-around excellent supporting cast to make for an evening of theater sure to enchant not only Little Women’s legion of fans but just about any musical theater aficionado.

The musical, which ran on Broadway in 2005 with Sutton Foster giving a Tony-nominated performance as Jo, has been a favorite of mine since I first heard its tuneful score (music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein) and later saw a performance of the post-Broadway National Tour.  Book writer Allan Knee has compacted Alcott’s 400+-word novel into a two-and-a-half hour musical which retains the book’s most memorable moments (Jo’s stealing a Christmas tree from the neighboring Lawrence family’s property, jealous Amy burning Jo’s manuscript, Jo’s shame at finding a scorch mark on her gown the night of the big party, etc.).  Howland and Dickstein’s songs run the gamut from Jo’s feisty “Better” to the bouncy “I’d Be Delighted,” to the rousing Act 1 closer “Astonishing.”  It’s hard to imagine a better adaptation, and in the three and half weeks since I reviewed the Lyric production’s opening night, any reservations I may have had about that first performance have vanished. This is now one WOW! of a production indeed.

Under Thomas Colby’s assured direction, Little Women gives Los Angeles audiences perhaps their first (but not their last) look at some very talented young women. The almost impossibly gorgeous Cassandra Marie Nuss is a marvelous Jo, effervescent and plucky, a musical theater leading lady who can act, and in the weeks since opening night, a voice that has become even richer and more powerful with a belt that still reaches the rafters.  Jenny Ashman continues to make the warm and wonderful Meg someone you simply can’t take your eyes off, in addition to possessing quite possibly the show’s finest voice (among many fine voices). Petite beauty Kaitlyn Casanova, fresh from superbly covering the role of Maria in West Side Story, makes the absolute most of Amy’s more limited stage time, transitioning smoothly from petulant girl to assured young woman.  (Her duet with Laurie reveals Casanova’s lovely soprano.)  Lindsay Evans’ Beth is so sweet and loving/loveable that tears are easily shed at the character’s untimely departure, and she too shines vocally in the deeply moving “Some Things Are Meant To Be.”

Bonnie Snyder steals scene after scene, milking every laugh imaginable from crusty Aunt March. (Snyder also appears to good effect as Jo’s employer, Mrs. Kirk.) Among the men, Zach Ford makes the strongest impression in the role of Meg’s beau, John Brooke, combining good looks, sincerity, and a tenor which fits Brooke to a T.  (“More Than I Am,” Ford’s duet with Ashman, provides the evening’s best sung and most emotional moment.) As boy-next-door Laurie, Reid Lee has the striking blond good looks that could easily have inspired the song “The Boy Next Door”, and charm to boot.  Reid’s performance too has ripened, and his Laurie is now simply irresistible.  Jon Powell does his best work yet as Jo’s stuffy but romantic Professor Bhaer, and you won’t hear better hrumphs than those of William Knight’s curmudgeonly Mr. Laurence.  Michael McAdam and Penelope Yates play a variety of supporting parts, as well as (between them) covering every role in the show. 

Finally, there is Dorrie Braun, whose growth in the role of Little Women’s Marmie is quite simply … astonishing.  Braun’s performance has developed layers and nuances, her love for her four girls shines through her eyes, and her renditions of “Here Alone” and “Days Of Plenty” have gained power and resonance. What a difference a few weeks can make.

Lauren Buck provides impeccable onstage accompaniment on piano and Jennifer Wilcove does fine work as musical director.

Allan Jensen’s scenic design makes the most of the wide Lyric stage, with Jo’s attic room on the left, various living rooms center stage (projections inside the picture frame above the mantle change depending on which room we’re in), and Jo’s New York apartment on the right.  Jenna Pletcher’s lighting design is excellent, and the final scenes (Amy getting ready to be married and an exquisite fade-out on an angelic Beth) are superbly realized.  Miguel J. Barragan’s costumes are an excellent depiction of the period, with particular kudos due his original creations for the show’s women.

The Lyric’s production of Little Women began as an entertaining evening of musical theater. It is now a real gem of a production and one I’m truly grateful to have gotten the chance to revisit. 

Lyric Theatre, 520 N. La Brea, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
April 12, 2009

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