Little Women The Broadway Musical returns to the Chance Theater for the first time since its maiden holiday engagement in 2009, and to paraphrase an Oscar-nominated song, the Chance hit proves even more wonderful the second time around.

 Erika C. Miller is back as Louisa May Alcott stand-in Jo March, along with director Casey Long, Eloise Coopersmith as Marmie, Sherry Domerego as Aunt March, Glenn Koppel as Mr. Lawrence, and Brandon Sanchez as Laurie. The rest of the cast is brand new, as are musical director Bill Strongin, assistant director Camryn Zelinger, and several of the production’s designers, the result of which is a Little Women which retains the best of 2009 but (and now I paraphrase Jo) embellishes on what was already quite terrific and makes it even better than before.

As StageSceneLA readers must know by now, Little Women The Broadway Musical 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 National Tour. 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.”

 The Chance Theater has once again scaled down the 2005 Broadway production to intimate theater dimensions (a full orchestra becomes a single piano here), the smaller setting providing a particularly appropriate fit for Alcott’s family tale. Under Long’s direction (even more imaginative and inspired this time round), a quintet of musical theater triple-threats bring the four March sisters to vibrant life (two actresses appear as Amy), and with its all-around excellent supporting cast, this is an evening of theater sure to enchant not only Little Women’s legion of fans but just about any musical theater aficionado.

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 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.)

If I described Chance Theater co-founder Miller’s performance as spunky, romantic Jo as “possibly her best ever” back in 2009, she is even more captivating in 2012, investing the iconic Alcott role with added depth and singing with even more power and pizzazz.

Miller is matched every step of the way by her brand new sisters, beginning with Laura M. Hathaway, who not only looks and acts the part of the beautiful, caring Meg but sings quite gloriously to boot.

 There’s not a trace of West Side Story Jet girl Minnie (her previous Chance role) in Tasha Tormey’s exquisite, heartbreaking Beth. (Talk about versatility!)

Once again director Long splits the role of Amy between child and young adult actresses, a brilliant choice which makes the character’s childish moments far more believable than with an adult actress pretending to be twelve.

Young Amy understudy Cori McKay has star written all over her in a performance that recalls a very young Lindsay Lohan circa The Parent Trap, i.e. back when Lohan showed an abundance of talent and promise.

Kelsey Jones shines too in her Act Two scenes as Older Amy and in her charming duet of “The Most Amazing Thing” with Sanchez, an absolutely winning Laurie in 2009, and every more dashing three years later. (Kudos to Sanchez for hitting the absurdly high notes composer Howland has given him in “Take A Chance On Me.”)

 Bearded blond Taylor Stephenson makes for a John Brooke any Meg would fall head over heels for, and duets a gorgeous “More Than I Am” with Hathaway as his intended.

As for the professor who eventually steals our narrator’s heart, Chris Caputo plays and sings the stuffy yet secretly romantic Bhaer quite splendidly as well.

Returning adults Coopersmith, Domergo, and Koppel have taken their already marvelous Marmie, Aunt March, and Mr. Lawrence, and given them new layers and colors. Coopersmith coaxes more than a few tears with the show’s two two most gorgeous, moving ballads Domerego is once again hilariously quirky as both Aunt March and Jo’s New York landlady Mrs. Kirk. And if I wrote in 2009 that “Koppel couldn’t be better as gruff Mr. Laurence with a heart of mush,” I take that back. He’s even better three years later.

Little Women 2009 marked resident company member Long’s first solo directorial assignment at the Chance, at which time I raved about his bang-up work, his many personal touches, and the clever bits of business he gave to the three-dimensional characters his cast of actors had created. Long has since then honed his skills as a director as this “even better” (I’m quoting myself now) return engagement makes abundantly clear.

 Jessie McLean has once again choreographed several charming dance sequences. Masako Tobaru’s effective lighting design complements her imaginative scenic design, which has pages from Alcott’s book on either side of the stage and new-for-2012 projections (by Long) setting the scene. (I do wish there were a way to keep those projections vibrant and vivid when the lights go up on the actors.) Costume designer Miller has created outfits that are not only period-perfect but fit each character’s personality to a T. Director Long is once again responsible for the production’s fine sound design, which amplifies voices just enough to ensure that each song is clearly heard above musical director Bill Strongin’s impeccable onstage piano accompaniment. Fight choreographer David McCormick has coached some exciting swordplay for Jo’s swashbuckling stories. Teodora Ramos is stage manager.

Far more than last year’s holiday offering Anne Of Green Gables, Little Women The Broadway Musical gives Chance audiences a show that adults can enjoy every bit as much as children. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Little Women is a musical for adults—that just happens to be equally enjoyable for the younger set.

Put all of the above together and you’ve got quite possibly the best musical choice for Orange County audiences this holiday season … and one that L.A. musical theater lovers will want to be sure and catch as well.

The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
November 24, 2012
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

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