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Review: Little Women is (are?) Simply Astonishing

On Friday night I attended the opening night gala of Storybook Theatre’s Little Women with my sister Susan and her husband, Will (two of the most active members of my Calgary Musicals MeetUp Group).  In keeping with Storybook’s mandate as explained to me by producer George Smith, they have chosen another musical based on a book, this time the well-known and beloved 1869 novel by Louisa May Alcott.  I missed the 2005 show by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein (book by Allan Knee) when it played on Broadway, so I was glad to get chance to see it here in Calgary.

I remember having the book in the house growing up and I think I probably read it, but only vaguely remembered the intertwining stories of the March daughters (“brassy, tomboy-like aspiring writer Jo, romantic Meg, pretentious Amy and kind-hearted Beth”).   The story is set in Concord, Massachusetts during the U.S. Civil War (or as some southerners prefer to call it, even today, “The War of Northern Aggression”), while Mr. March is away serving with the Union Army and the girls are left in the care of their beloved Marme.  Howland also grew up in Concord, so perhaps that was why he was inspired to do this show.

As Joe Slabe (Forte Musical Theatre Artistic Director) says, one of the advantages of adapting classic books into plays or musicals is that you’ve got a strong base to work from and typically the stories stand the test of time and they’ve got strong characters. Little Women is no exception. The creators have done a good job of making the transition “from the page to the stage”, as they say (actually I don’t know if “they” say it, but I’m saying it now), although Susan tells me that they have taken some liberties with the original, and included elements from some of the sequels (Little Men and Jo’s Boys). Susan is a novelist herself (Deadly Fall) and we wondered if perhaps this book inspired her to follow in Jo’s footsteps – our family did have four daughters after all (and a son, who could be equated with Laurie, the new boy next door, who is embraced by the family in the song “Five Forever”).  The music, while not familiar, is also solid, occasionally reminiscent of other contemporary musicals like Wicked (Stephen Schwartz), or Beauty and the Beast (Allan Menken), while still keeping the feel of the era.  I’m writing a period musical myself at the moment (No Ordinary Tulip, set during the tulip mania crisis in 1637 Holland), so there may be some good role-modelling for me here.  

Storybook has another winner on their hands with this show – it’s well-directed by Linda Delaney (with musical direction by Patrice Barnes) and the acting and singing are strong across the board.  And it’s funnier than you might expect, especially when the family is performing one of Jo’s “blood and guts” melodramas.  The star of the show is Jillian Hannah in the role of the central character, proto-feminist Jo March.  She’s perfectly cast for the role, and her rendition of “Astonishing” at the end of Act I was so powerful it actually brought tears to my eyes.  She recently performed at the Kiwanis Festival with fellow cast members Taylor Steedman (Beth/Roderigo 2) and Naomi Dirksen (Clarissa), and won the Friends of the Festival scholarship.  I also particularly enjoyed Cassie Doane (previously seen as the mother in Storybook’s Pinkalicious)’s hilarious characterization of the sourpuss Aunt March.   

A show like this is a costume designer’s dream, and Rhonda Perry (who won last year’s CAT costume design award for Front Row Centre’s Brigadoon, and also did their costumes for The Rocky Horror Show and Chess in 2010-11) did an amazingly professional job here with no less than 92 period costumes, which were designed and created just for this production – when I spoke to Rhonda after the show she said it was definitely a labour of love, petitcoats, bloomers and all. Considering that the March family was poor, there were probably more costume changes than absolutely necessary, but it was great eye candy, and in addition to the women’s dresses being beautiful, they suited each character to a T.  And the men (yes, there are men in this show, in fact one-third of the leads and half the ensemble are men), don’t get short-changed either.  I hope someone else gets to use these costumes another time, as they’re too good to just gather dust in the closet.

I fear that Little Women’s simplicity and the perception that it’s a “chick” show or somehow old-fashioned will scare people away, which will be a shame, because it’s the kind of show that crosses ages and genders in terms of its appeal, even though it’s not about the spectacle. My brother-in-law liked it, mostly because of the strength of the story. Anyone who likes to read would probably enjoy it, and I expect people seeing the show will be inspired to read or re-read the book because of it. I know I will.

Troy Goldthorp (Laurie/Roderigo) told me after the show that many of the cast who have worked together on Storybook shows for years are graduating (from high school and/or college), and dispersing at the end of this show, so the final performance is bound to be emotional. I am always blown away when I see so much talent in people so young and I hope many of these fine performers will go on to careers in music and theatre, or at least continue to do it in their spare time so we’ll continue to see them on Calgary and other stages for years to come.

Little Women runs until May 5 at the Pumphouse Theatre. Shows run Wednesday to Friday at 7:30PM and there are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 12:00PM and 3:30PM. Tickets are $18 and $22. Running time is 2 hours plus a 20 minute intermission and it’s rated G (suitable for all ages – although young children might find it long).

 For more information and tickets go to: Storybook Theatre

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3 thoughts on “Review: Little Women is (are?) Simply Astonishing

  1. Pingback: Let’s Declare May “Calgary Musical Theatre Month”! « Calgary Musicals

  2. Pingback: Q&A with … Paul Mulloy (Centre for Performing and Visual Arts at Central Memorial High) « Calgary Musicals

  3. Pingback: Is It Time for Manly Men to Come Out of the Closet? « Calgary Musicals

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