Friday, October 1, 2010
Theater review: Little Women, the Musical at Uptown Theater in Grand Prairie
I will have to give The Grand Prairie Arts Council an "A" for effort in trying to tackle such a huge undertaking with Little Women.
Louisa May Alcott's novel, Little Women, is a true American classic. It was first published in 1868, and became an immediate commercial and critical success for its author. The story, loosely based on Alcott's own childhood, chronicles the lives of the four March sisters. Using the Civil War as a backdrop and setting the story in her own home town of Concord, Massachusetts, Alcott was able to draw her readers in by closely relating the stories to her own experiences.
Her story of unconditional love, perseverance, loyalty, and heartbreak gave birth to several movie versions, an opera, animation, a play, and a musical. Little Women, the Musical is being presented by The Grand Prairie Arts Council at the beautifully renovated Uptown Theater, now through October 3 in Grand Prairie.
It is safe to bet that almost everyone has read the novel or seen one or more of the film versions. The 1933 version stared Katharine Hepburn as Jo. That was followed by a 1949 adaptation with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, June Allyson as Jo, Janet Leigh as Meg, and Margaret O'Brian as Beth. And who could forget the 1978 version that had Meredith "Family Ties" Baxter as Meg, Susan "The Partridge Family" Dey as Jo, and Eve "Jan Brady" Plumb as Beth? Of course I've forgotten it -- thank goodness. The thought of Eve Plumb whining on her death bed would be too much for anyone to recall. But the one I fondly remember is the beautifully designed and acted 1994 film starring Winona Ryder as Jo, Kirsten Dunst as the young Amy, Claire Danes as Beth, Susan Sarandon as Marmee, and the master supporting role player and comic war-horse, Mary Wicks as Aunt March.
The story begins in New York City. The year is 1865. Jo March, here played by Lindsey Schmeltzer, has moved to the city to try and find herself as a writer. Playing against the usual tom-boyish approach, Ms. Schmeltzer rounds out the character of Jo by making her determined and sometimes a little lost. She did, however have a bit of trouble hitting some of the high notes in this particular performance. One of her fellow boarding house residents is Professor Bhaer, JD Vineyard. Mr.Vineyard has a firm grasp on the no-nonsense German professor, although he at times gets lost in the consistency of his German accent.
In a series of flashbacks we are able to now meet the rest of the March family which include Meg (Morgan Mabry Mason), Amy (Erin Elliott), Beth (Shannon Walsh), and Marmee (Brandi Andrade). There were some nice moments when this ensemble played together. Ms. Andrade is solid and impressive Marmee. Ms. Elliott's Amy is vain and spoiled in the first act then matures nicely in the second act. Having come to Concord to live with his grandfather is Laurie Laurence (Zak Dacus Reynolds) and his tutor Mr. John Brooke (Charlie Knight). Reynolds shows a natural presence and ease as Laurie. He provided the most well rounded performance from within this talented company. Reynolds's acting and singing were both stellar. Mr. Knight is equally as charming as Mr. Brooke -- his scenes with his fiancée were especially quite touching to observe.
You won't find any taped or canned music here. Tripp Jackson's music direction produced some of the finest vocal performances I have ever heard. I was completely blown away by the collective singing talents of EVERYONE in this cast, although it is hard to single out any one performance there were several stand outs. Ms. Andrade's (Marmee) rendition of "Here Alone," Morgan Mabry Mason (Meg) and Charlie Knight (Mr. Brooks) together with "More Than I Am," Lindsey Schmeltzer (Jo) with "Astonishing," and Ms. Schmeltzer again with Shannon Walsh (Beth) with "Some Things Are Meant To Be" still ring clear in my memory.
But the one number where the entire company had a chance to shine was the song, "The Weekly Volcano Press" which began Act 2. This number had the entire company acting out one of Jo's melodramatic stories. This number resulted one of the evening's most visual and vocal highlights of the entire production. And let's not forget to mention Wes Reed on the piano and Margaret Scoggins on the keyboard. Other theaters should take a hint and burn their track music and hire these two talented musicians. Their combined effort sounded like a million bucks.
There were a lot of costumes in this show! From ball gowns to traveling suits and summer to winter, the vast array of clothes needed in order to show progression of time and season is overwhelming. Costume Designer Kimberly Nielsen probably had more of a head start than most since she is associated with Costumes By Dusty, a costume rental house. I wish, however, that she would have tried to find one or two well-fitting, character-appropriate costumes for the women and used a few choice accessories (changing collars and cuffs, a different apron, etc.) to indicate the passing of time and or season. The characters were changing costumes constantly, sometimes into a costume worn before by a different character. (Sorry, I notice that sort of thing.) The mixing of time periods with rich velvet capes and bonnets playing alongside printed pastel patchwork got to be really messy. I will have to say that the men's costumes were slightly better, but they all needed to be edited down and simplified.
I feel the same way about the set design by Matthew Betz. I liked the idea of the suggestion of a house with a frame to indicate the structure. But it was too cluttered with stuff and heavy in the middle that was to be Jo's attic space. I wanted it to be pushed more to the center and downstage a couple of feet. It also could have benefited by an added level or two to give better playing areas to help the static staging.
I will have to give The Grand Prairie Arts Council an "A" for effort in trying to tackle such a huge undertaking with Little Women, the Musical. More established theater companies would not have even considered the risk. In the future their focus should stay on what they do best with music, vocals, and characterization and learn the beauty of simplicity.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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