One of the largely unsung Broadway musical treasures of the early 2000s now provides ten of the most talented L.A.-based performers to shine as Musical Theatre Guild presents its concert staged reading of Little Women, with just one performance remaining.


Little Women The Musical has been a favorite of mine since I first heard its tuneful score (music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein) on CD, then caught the First National Tour in Costa Mesa. Book writer Allan Knee has somehow managed to compact Alcott’s 400-plus-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 Laurence 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.) while adding songs which run the gamut from Jo’s feisty “Better” to the bouncy “I’d Be Delighted,” to the rousing Act 1 closer “Astonishing.”

I can’t imagine a better musical adaptation of the children’s and young adult classic than Howland and Dickstein’s, one which manages to be family-friendly while maintaining an adult sophistication that makes it a treat for theatergoers of all ages. Not only that, but each of its cast members gets at least one featured vocal number, making it an ideal talent showcase for Musical Theatre Guild’s 90% Equity cast and for its accomplished director-choreographer Kirsten Chandler. As with all MTG shows, minimal set pieces and props take the place of a full scenic design, but no matter. With performances as all-around terrific as these, it’s easy to imagine the setting without having it spelled out.

At lights up, we’re in New York as aspiring writer Jo describes to her German friend Professor Bhaer a story she’s written. “It’s a mean and stormy night,” she begins. “The moors are bleak and bloody. Thunder claps. Lighting strikes. And there, Clarissa, her clothes in disarray, races across the wild coastal heath.” Then, as Jo continues her tale in song, lights come up on her sister Meg, friend John Brooke, and boy-next-door Laurie Laurence standing upstage and and costumed as Clarissa, Braxton, and Rodrigo. As Jo tells her melodramatic adventure tale, her gestures are mimicked in perfect sync by the characters she’s created (or is she mimicking them?). Rodrigo has just entered “in magnificent splendor” when Professor Bhaer interrupts Jo with a critique and some words of advice. Certainly Jo could do better than this, couldn’t she? “Better?!” exclaims an infuriated Jo. “My stories were a great success in Concord!”

We then flash back several years to the Concord, Massachusetts home of the March family. The year is 1863. The Civil War is still raging, and the family patriarch is serving as a Union Army chaplain. Left at home is his wife “Marmee” and daughters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, who pass their time enacting Jo’s romantic adventure stories. Tomboy Jo dreams of being a writer, and when her Aunt March offers her the chance to travel to Europe as her companion (on condition that Jo learn to act like a lady), Jo jumps at the chance. Unfortunately for Jo, becoming a true lady is easier said than done, and when she discovers that jealous younger sister Amy has burned her latest story in a fit of pique, Jo reacts in a very unladylike manner.

For anyone unfamiliar with Little Women’s multiple plotlines, synopsizing ends here. Suffice it to say that there will be joys, sorrows, disappointments, romances, wedding proposals, and an ending promising much more still in store for the March sisters. (Alcott did, after all, write two sequels to Little Women.)

The Broadway production’s sole Tony-nomination was for Sutton Foster’s Jo, and as the phenomenal newcomer Alyssa M. Simmons makes abundantly clear, the role of sister number two is a doozy. Not only does Jo (and by extension Simmons) get to be a feisty, spunky ball of fire, songwriters Howland and Dickstein give Jo as fine a vocal showcase as any soprano belter has had in years, and wow can Simmons belt out those high notes without a hint of stridency in her glorious powerhouse vocal cords. Simmons may be new to musical theater aficionados, but she won’t be for long.

Sisters 1, 3, and 4 get less to do than their better known sibling, but MTG stars Jennifer Malenke, Melissa Lyons Caldretti, and Melissa Fahn make the very most of warm, caring Meg, innately sweet Beth, and self-centered-but-kind-hearted Amy. All three sing angelically, Malenke duetting the gorgeous “More Than I Am” with Roger Befeler’s marvelous John Brooke, Caldretti breaking hearts alongside Simmons with “Some Things Are Meant To Be,” and Fahn sparkling brightly opposite Will Collyer’s irresistible Laurie in “Small Umbrella In The Rain.” As for the multitalented Collyer, only a handful of actors can hit the sky-high notes in “Take A Chance On Me” with perfect pitch, volume, and clarity, and Collyer is one of them. Christopher Carothers is terrific as the stuffy yet secretly romantic Professor Bhaer, as is Gordon Goodman as gruff Mr. Laurence (with a heart of mush). Eileen Barnett is maternal warmth and good humor personified as Marmee, and makes the show’s two most gorgeous, moving ballads (performed on Broadway by Maureen McGovern) splendidly her own. Completing the cast is the one-and-only Carol Kline, investing her cameos as Aunt March and Mrs. Kirk with an abundance of originality and verve.

Chandler blocks her actors imaginatively, elicits A-1 performances from each, and integrates some delightful choreography which—amazingly—her cast has learned in their Actors Equity-mandated twenty-five rehearsal hours.

Musical director Lloyd Cooper does fine work conducting the five-piece Little Women orchestra, which features Cooper on piano, Ray Frisby on percussion, Bob Crosby on reeds, Liane Mautner on violin, and Tim Christensen on acoustic base. (Note: Only Cooper, Matuner, and Christensen will be appearing at Little Women’s reprise performance on Saturday.)

Wardrobe supervisors A. Jeffrey Schoenberg and Jessica Olson give each character a single well-chosen period outfit to wear throughout, letting us imagine the costume changes a fully staged production would provide. Erik McEwen’s wigs add to the Civil War-era look. Art Brickman is production stage manager, Christopher Rosko and Tara Sitser assistant stage managers, and Jill Marie Burke and Jeffrey Christopher Todd production coordinators.

Laughter, romance, excitement, tears—Little Women has them all, and never more captivatingly so than as performed by Musical Theatre Guild, once again proving itself one of L.A.’s most most valued theatrical treasures.

–Steven Stanley
February 13, 2012 @ Alex Theatre, Glendale.
Photos: Alan Weston

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