Challenging Convention | “Little Women” @ Chance Theatre

Little Women (Chance)userpic=theatre_ticketsI have a number of quests in my life. One quest is to add music to my iPod, and often this includes Broadway and Off-Broadway shows I haven’t seen, but are recommended. Another quest is to see musicals I’ve only heard. This weekend was an opportunity to do the latter, informed by the former, when we went to go see the second preview performance of Little Woman: The Broadway Musical at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim (where Route 91 meets Imperial Highway).

Little Women: The Broadway Musical is a 2005 musical written by Allan Knee (FB) [Book], Jason Howland (FB) [Music], and Mindi Dickstein (FB) [Lyrics], based on the 1869 novel by (all together now) Louisa May Alcott. Perhaps surprisingly to some, I have never actually read the novel (although I do recall having a copy of the sequel, Little Men, as a boy, which I also never actually read). So, going in, my only knowledge of the story was from the cast album, which I had really only listened to on shuffle. I knew it was about four sisters, and one was a writer, and that’s about it.

Reading the Wikipedia summary of the book after the show, I came to see that the stage production was a condensation and approximation of the book. It captured, at least based on Wikipedia, the major themes of the books and some of the major incidents. It also played a little loose with the timeline in the book, but not in a way that seemed to affect the themes in the story. Being a condensation, it was only able to draw the characters broadly; I think this is a flaw that would be found in many musicals that are based on condensations of larger novels — the time available makes it difficult to build deep characters and move the story along. For that, you need TV and binge watching.

The focus of the story is the growth of the character Josephine (“Jo”) March from approximately 15 to her early 20s during the time of the Civil War; it is also a semi-autobiographical tale of the original author as represented by Jo. It explores the relationship between Jo and her sisters (Meg, Beth, and Amy); the societal expectations on women in that era; the perceived role of men in relationship to women; and the perceptions of a headstrong, independent, woman to Civil War society. Thinking about that statement as I write it, I’m drawn to a parallel between Jo March and another headstrong literary woman at the end of the Civil War: Scarlett O’Hara of Gone With the Wind. One Northern, one Southern. Hmmmm.

As opposed to attempting to write a detailed synopsis, I’m just going to point you to the Wikipedia page. I’d rather use this space to explore my observations on the story and its presentation.

Much of the first act is spent establishing the characters and their personalities. With so many significant characters (the four March sisters and Laurie), that takes a while and quite a few songs (and is very different than a story with one or two protagonists).  The main character, Jo, is someone who must have been quite a draw when the story was first written: strong, independent, headstrong, eschewing the cultural norms. They must not have known what to make of her. In fact — being unfamiliar with the story — I had the feeling at the end of the first act that she might be either asexual or lesbian. There was just some sense about her. That proved not to be the case (and isn’t a surprise given when the story was written), but one wonders if that was an attraction of the book (or is an artifice of the musical). Thinking about her in contrast to Scarlett O’Hara is interesting. Jo achieves what she does through her wits and essentially independent of any man. Scarlett has the wits but keeps them to herself; she manipulates men through her femininity and her exploitation of cultural mores. Is this a reflection on the North vs. the South of the time? Ultimately, both attract the men they need by being themselves — their mates love them for who they are and less as a societal caricature. Both are also fiercely loyal to family and relationships. There are significant differences: Jo starts out poor and earns her money; Scarlett starts out rich, becomes poor, but acquires money through manipulation of men. It is still an interesting parallel.

The authors establish the characters of the other sisters to a much lesser extent, and mostly through interaction with Jo. The superficial aspects are sufficient for a musical, although some of the comments I read on the original production felt that was a flaw. I didn’t see it that way. Let’s look at the characters through the performers that created them.

In the lead position was Ashley Arlene Nelson (FB) as Jo March. We’d seen Nelson before in Dogfight, and she was equally strong here. The characterizations of Jo March I’ve read online talk about her as beautiful. I’m not sure you get that classic beauty with Nelson, but you get that same strong inner beauty that shone through in Dogfight. In fact, you get a bit more — there are these telling little smiles and expressions that are just delightful to watch; her performance brings forth the inner fire within Jo to succeed. As such, her performance is mesmerizing. One of the best places to see this is in her interactions with Laurie — just watch during “Take a Chance on Me”, or her face on the lovely “Small Umbrella in the Rain”. A truly delightful performance.

Jo’s sisters were less strongly drawn in the script, but still gave remarkable performances. Laura M. Hathaway (FB), as Meg, the oldest sister, seems more traditionally drawn. She shines in her interactions not only with her sisters in the group numbers, but in her one-on-ones with John Boone. Again, watch the face and the little things, especially during her number “More Than I Am”. Another remarkable performer was Emma Nossal (FB)’s Beth. In fact, it was her performance in “Some Things Are Meant To Be” that made me realize remarkable acting. She was flying a kite on stage just through her movements, and I could swear that I could see the string to the kite. That’s a great performance, where through craft alone one can create the image and impression of existence of the non-existent.  She also had a lovely singing voice, which you can see in the delightful “Off to Massachusetts” number. The youngest sister, Amy, was portrayed by two actresses: Olivia Knox was the younger Amy at our performance (she alternates with Alea Jordan); Angela Griswold (FB) was the older Amy. Young Amy is primarily in the first act and mostly has group songs, yet is still fun to watch  in her performance. The older Amy has a remarkable and distinctive smile and voice — watching her interact with Laurie in “The Most Amazing Thing” is a delight to watch.

This brings us to Laurie (Theodore Laurence III), the orphaned grandson of the neighbor across the street, Jo’s best friend, and … well, you’ll find out. He is portrayed by Jimmy Saiz (FB), who brings a remarkable energy, spirit, and bounce to the role. You can rapidly see why he and Nelson’s Jo become best friends. Again, he has a strong singing voice that is demonstrated both  in “Take a Chance on Me” and in his wonderful duet with older Amy, “The Most Amazing Thing”.

This brings us to the second tier of characters, who are drawn with a much lighter pen. Rachael Oliveros Catalano (FB) portrays Marmee, the mother of the March clan. The scenes she has show here as the glue of stability for the family, and she has some lovely numbers in “Here Alone” and “Days of Plenty”. Beyond that stability and the tension and pain she is facing as woman running a house while her man is away in the Civil War, we don’t learn much about here. Similarly lightly drawn is Glenn Koppel (FB)’s Mr. Laurence, the wealthy man who lives across the street, and who initially is the caricature of the mean rich man. He has a remarkable transformation in his number with Nossal’s Beth, “Off to Massachusetts”, which is quite fun to watch.

One of the characters we meet in the first scene we don’t see again until the top of the second act. Although also lightly drawn, he is one of my favorite performances — Nicholas Thurkettle (FB) as Professor Bhaer.  Not a super amount of lines, but watch closely his interactions with Jo and his facial expressions — particularly in “How I Am” and “Small Umbrella in the Rain”. That last number in particular I found quite touching — I’m sure many of us know relationships like that.

Laurie’s tutor, and Meg’s eventual husband, John Brooke is portrayed by Stefan Miller (FB). We don’t get to know much about John, but the actor has a great duet with Hathaway’s Meg in “More Than I Am”. Lastly, the authoritarian Aunt March is portrayed by Sherry Domerego (FB). We’ve all known or had an aunt like that (I certainly did). Domerego captures the character to a “T”, and is fun to watch in her number with Jo, “Could You”.

The production was directed by Casey Long (FB); Sarah Figoten Wilson (FB) was the Associate Director. As I’ve written before, as a non-actor I have trouble determining where the actor ends and the director begins, or is that where the direction ends and the acting begins. Perhaps it is the distinction between the individual (which is more acting) and the ensemble (which is management of the group). If so, then this production shows the talent of the direction team in not only bringing out strong individual performances, but it bringing out strong group interactions — be it the interactions of the March sisters in numbers like “Our Finest Dreams” or “Five Forever”, or the small two person interactions I’ve previously mentioned. Supporting the directoral team on this was the choreography of Jessie McLean. The dance numbers in this show weren’t all that fancy, but they worked well and supported the story.

Bill Strongin (FB) was the music director, and presumably the on-stage piano player. It was interesting hearing this with the single piano approach. I was only familiar with the full orchestra approach of the Broadway cast album. The single piano worked just fine.

Turning to the behind the scenes creative and supporting professionals: The scenic and lighting design was by Masako Tobaru (FB). I am always impressed by the creativity of the Chance set designs, and this was no exception. This was a clever mix of large book pages (I am still trying to determine if they printed large sheets, or applied words in a reasonably straight line), a projection along the back, and a raked wooden platform, supplemented by a few movable pieces. It worked remarkably well, and was supported by spectacular lighting that made up quite well for the Chance’s lack of a moving spot. In fact, the lighting and set worked well together to direct the attention to particular areas and lessen the focus on others. The Sound and Projection Design supporting this was by the director, Casey Long (FB). I initially thought I would notice the projections more; as it was, the set and lighting moved my perception of the projections to the background. As a result, they supported, instead of actually defining, the sense of place. Sound was similar, as the actual design was only apparent during the storms. The actors were not miced. This isn’t really necessary in a small space like the Chance, although a few could use a pinch more volume. Costume Design was by Erika C. Miller (FB), assisted by Associate Designer Barbara Phillips. The costumes seemed reasonably period to me, and there was only one minor malfunction (which I attributed to the 2nd preview — a dress didn’t get fully zipped). Original fight choreography was by David McCormick. Teodora Ramos/FB was the stage manager.  You can find a list of the Chance Staff here.

Little Women: The Broadway Musical continues at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim (where Route 91 meets Imperial Highway) until December 23. You can get tickets through the Chance Online Box Office, or by calling 888.455.4212. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. The show is worth seeing.

The Chance Theatre has just announced their 2017 season. In the main series is (1) Claudio Quest, January 27 — February 26 2017, a new musical from the team behind Loch Ness about video games; (2) Middletown, April 21 — May 21; (3) Parade, June 30 — July 30; (4) in a word, September 8 — October 8 ; and (5) Tribes, September 22 — October 22. The TYA Series consists of (1) The Little Prince, February 17 — March 5; and (2) Fancy Nancy, the Musical, May 5 — May 28. The OTR series consists of four shows: (1) How to Conquer America: A Mostly True History of Yogurt on March 1; (2) Ted Malawer’s The Anatomy of Love: OTR LAB Workshop on July 20-23; and (3-4) two TBA shows on May 10 and October 18. The Holiday series consists of The Secret Garden – The Musical, November 24 — December 23 and the return of The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, December 8 — December 23. Of these, only one show currently appears worth the 63 mile drive from Northridge: Claudio Quest. As for the other musicals, I’ve seen them up here (or their time period is completely booked). However, I might make an exception if my niece and nephew want to see Parade. If you live in Orange County, however, this looks like a great set of shows for an affordable price.

Dining Notes: Whenever we go to the Chance, we always eat at the same place: True Seasons Organic Kitchen (FB), a healthy organic hot pot restaurant across the street from the Chance. Healthy vegetables, healthy meat, gluten free options, and home-made flavoring broths.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB).

The Chromolume 2017 season looks particularly good: Zanna Don’t (Tim Acito, January 13 – February 5), Hello Again (Michael John LaChiusa, May 5- May 28), and Pacific Overtures (Stephen Sondheim, September 15 – October 8) — all for only $60). Note that Chromolume Theatre (FB) is doing a “Black Friday” sale, with 20% off their subscription with the code in the linked email. That’s three musicals for just $16 each (and then donate the 20% back for a tax deduction). You only have until midnight on Monday to take advantage of this special.

Past subscriptions have included  The Colony Theatre (FB) (which went dormant in 2016), and Repertory East Playhouse (“REP”) (FB) in Newhall (which entered radio silence in 2016). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:  December starts with Into the Woods at Nobel Middle School, and staged concert of Wonderful Town being performed by the LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. The next week brings the CSUN Jazz Band at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), and Amalie at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The third week of December brings  The King and I at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). December concludes with an unspecified movie on Christmas day; and a return to our New Years Eve Gaming Party.

Turning to 2017, January currently is quiet, with just Zanna Don’t at the Chromolume Theatre (FB) on January 16. We may get tickets to Claudio Quest at the Chance Theatre (FB) on January 28. February 2017 gets back to being busy: with Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum (FB) the first weekend. The second weekend brings 33 Variations at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend has a hold for the WGI Winter Regionals. The last weekend in February brings Finding Neverland at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). March quiets down a bit — at least as currently scheduled — with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner,  Fun Home at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) at the beginning of the month, and An American in Paris at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) at the end of the month.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.