An almost entirely new cast breathes fresh new life into Little Women – The Broadway Musical in its Chance Theater return, one that audiences can consider themselves lucky to have caught during its just concluded five-week run.
Compacting Louisa May Alcott’s 400-plus-word novel into a two-and-three-quarter hour musical would seem a Herculean task, but it is one that book writer Allan Knee achieved quite adeptly indeed, the 2005 Broadway adaptation retaining 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 a batch of tuneful songs (music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein) running the gamut from Jo’s feisty “Better” to the bouncy “I’d Be Delighted,” to the rousing Act One closer “Astonishing.”
An opening sequence introduces us to one of aspiring writer Jo’s romantic flights of fancy, its characters brought to life by March family and friends, a gothic tale that gets quickly poopooed by Jo’s German friend Professor Bhaer, after which we are transported back several years to the Marches’ Concord, Massachusetts home circa 1863.
With the Civil War still raging and the family patriarch serving as a Union Army chaplain, it’s the March sisters’ mother “Marmee” who is left behind to care for the couple’s “Little Women.”
There’s Meg, the “pretty one,” who falls for the neighbor boy’s tutor John Brooke; dreamer Beth, who wishes nothing more than her sisters’ happiness; Amy, the youngest, perpetually in a pout about being the forgotten one; and above all second sister (and Alcott stand-in) Jo, who eschews dreams of love and marriage (take that, smitten boy-next-door Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence), opting instead for a writer’s life despite those twenty-two rejection letters that have shown up in her mailbox so far.
Joys, sorrows, disappointments, romances, and at least two weddings, Little Women – The Broadway Musical has them all, plus an ending promising much more still in store for the March sisters. (Alcott did, after all, write two sequels to Little Women.)
Equally important, Little Women – The Broadway Musical manages to be family-friendly while maintaining an adult sophistication that makes it a treat for theatergoers of all ages.
Following hit Chance Theater runs in 2009 and 2012, Casey Long returns to direct for 2016, aided this time round by associate director Sarah Figoten Wilson, the duo’s vision more sparklingly winning than ever.
Other than three-timers Sherry Domerego (once again amusingly quirky as both Aunt March and Jo’s New York landlady Mrs. Kirk) and Glenn Koppel (a crusty gem of a Mr. Laurence, outwardly gruff but with a heart of mush) and 2009’s Meg Laura M. Hathaway (incandescent, with a soprano to match), the entire rest-of-cast is new for 2016, hitting one bulls-eye after another for Long, Wilson, and the Chance.
As she did in her Outstanding Lead Actress Scenie-winning performance as Dogfight’s Rose earlier this year, Nelson commands the stage as our spunky heroine Jo life-journeys from feisty to fiery to fabulous, and she belts terrifically to boot.
The radiant Rachel Oliveros Catalano is everything you want Marmie to be, not only conveying palpable maternal love but making the March matriarch’s matching pair of vocal showcases (“Here Alone” and “Days Of Plenty”) emotion-packed winners.
Emma Nossal is delicate perfection as Beth, delightful young Alea Jordan channels her inner mean girl to hiss-worth effect as Young Amy, and Angela Griswold adds a zesty quirkiness to Older Amy that makes her every Act Two moment a treat.
Jimmy Saiz’s endearingly baby-faced Laurie reveals sky-high tenor pipes, Stefan Miller makes for a dashing John Brooke (and duets “More Than I Am” with Hathaway to particularly moving effect), and Nicholas Thurkettle makes for an appropriately stuffy Professor Bhaer.
Musical director Bill Strongin provides expert piano backup throughout as cast members vocalize expertly (and occasionally break into dance to Jessie McLean’s original choreography, recreated for 2016).
Masako Tobaru’s effective lighting design complements her imaginative scenic design, expanded from an earlier incarnation to fit the larger Cripe Stage, pages from Alcott’s book on either side as projection designer Long’s period-perfect black-and-white etchings help to set the scene.
Costume designer Miller has created outfits that are not only era-appropriate but fit each character’s personality to a T, Long is once again responsible for the production’s fine sound design, and there’s even some exciting swordplay.
Olivia Knox shares the role of Young Amy. David McCormick is original fight choreographer, Aaron McGee is associate fight choreographer, and Barbara Phillips is associate costume designer. Teodora Ramos is stage manager.
Though I’ve now seen seven productions of Little Women, the Broadway gem hasn’t lost an iota of its power to make this reviewer’s heart sing. I count myself fortunate to have caught Little Women – The Broadway Musical’s final performance for 2016, an absolutely splendid season closer for the Chance.
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
December 23, 2016
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio