Few recent Broadway shows offer as many fine roles for theater majors as Little Women The Musical, making it a terrific showcase for students of Cal State Fullerton’s illustrious BFA in Musical Theatre program. That CSUF’s spring musical 2012 also happens to be a delightful, entertaining family treat makes it well worth a drive down to the OC.

 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.

 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.)

 Guest Artist director Jana Robbins knows Little Women well, having been a producer of the Original Broadway production, and her familiarity with the material reveals itself in the all-around splendid production she and her creative team have mounted.

As Jo, BFA Class Of 2012’s Rebecca Tucker has the audience in the palm of her hand from start to finish, giving Little Women’s feisty lead heroine ample quantities of charm and spunk, and if the songs’ highest notes proved occasionally challenging at the performance reviewed, Tucker’s winning work both anchors the production and provides the axis around which supporting characters spin.

Jo’s sisters get less to do than their better known sibling, but since each is given her very own in-the-spotlight moments, these are great roles for future Broadway and regional theater stars to have on their résumés.

 Gina Velez is enchanting as Meg, the warm, caring eldest, duetting the exquisite “More Than I Am” in a glorious soprano opposite the oh-so handsome and talented Nick Waaland as John Brooke. As Beth, Micaela Martinez segues from “bad girls” Ariel of Footloose and Velma of Chicago to bring to equally marvelous but mirror-opposite life one of the sweetest and most beloved characters in fiction, coaxing tears from all but the stoniest-hearted with “Some Things Are Meant To Be,” opposite Tucker’s wonderful Jo. Petite pixie Amanda Sylvia has great fun with youngest sis Amy’s petty jealousies, then goes on to reveal the character’s heart in later scenes before sparkling brightly opposite Jordan Sidfield’s Laurie in “Small Umbrella In The Rain.”

 Sidfield proves himself among the cast’s most versatile members, having first dazzled this reviewer in umpteen roles in I Love You Because and then as Wedding Singer Robbie Hart. In Little Women, he once again dazzles as Laurie, the too-good-to-be-true boy-next-door every preteen fiction fan has at one time longed to wed, hitting the sky-high notes in “Take A Chance On Me” as only the best and bravest of tenors can.

 Gary Fields makes for a marvelously stuffy yet secretly romantic Professor Bhaer. Guest artist Forrest Robinson brings age and experience to the role of gruff yet mushy-hearted Mr. Lawrence.

  A pair of soon-to-graduate seniors shine brightly in mature roles, not the easiest task for actresses barely into their twenties, but Jessica Wilson as Marmie and Caitlin Humphreys as Aunt March are both fabulous. Wilson gives Marmie oceans of maternal depth, wisdom, humor, and love, and sings the show’s two most moving ballads in a rich, warm mezzo. Humphreys transitions from steel town waitress in The Wedding Singer to harumphy spinster aunt in a performance as scene-stealing as any actress of three times her years could accomplish.

Though most CSUF musicals are performed in the ironically named Little Theatre, Little Women’s intimacy makes the smaller and much newer 250-seat James D. Young Theatre a perfect choice, particularly with faculty scenic designer Ann Sheffield making imaginative use of the Young’s thrust stage. Especially impressive is a cleverly designed and utilized turntable, furniture that moves on and off stage at the flip of a switch, and a rooftop that lowers to stage level to turn the ground floor into an attic. Student costume designer Bradley Lock has created one splendid 1860s outfit after another, including some fantastic fantasy garb for Jo’s blood-and-guts fiction. Faculty lighting designer Debra Garcia Lockwood lights sets and costumes to perfection while student sound designer Bryan Williams insures a clear, crisp mixture of amplified voices and the fine backstage orchestra*, conducted by faculty musical director/pianist Mitch Hanlon. Faculty choreographer William F. Lett has created several lively dance sequences. Student hair and makeup designers Laura Young and Rachael Lorenzetti give each character just the right mid-19th Century look.

The program lists an additional hundred or so backstage names, most prominently production stage managers Vanessa Espino and her assistants Eric Bridges, Bridget Curtiss, and Francis Gacad and assistant director Lauren Kidwell.

With Cal State Fullerton graduating only a select ten students each year (the current crop have just aced their New York showcase), theatergoers are assured that every CSUF musical will feature the crème de la crème of future Broadway and regional theater triple-threats. So take this word to the wise and see the stars of Little Women The Musical while they’re still locally based. You’ll be paying much bigger bucks to see them in the future.

*Vincent Chang, Ben Coyote, Adrienne Geffen, Hanlon, Pete Herz, Rory Mazella, Cindy Penderghast, Matt Smith, Aaron Thomas, Judy Tumlinson

James D. Young Theatre, California State University Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton.

–Steven Stanley
April 22, 2012
Photos: Mark Ramont

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