Produced by: TheatreWorks
Featuring: Elizabeth Ward Land as Marmee, Emily Koch as Jo, Sharon Rietkerk as Meg, Julia Belanoff as Beth, Arielle Fishman as Amy, Matt Dengler as Laurie,Christopher Vettel as Professor Bhaer, Elizabeth Palmer as Aunt March/Mrs. Kirk, Richard Farrell as Mr. Laurence and Justin Buchs as John Brooke
Directed by: Robert Kelley
When: December 4, 2013-January 4, 2014
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, California
Tickets: $19-$79 (discounts available). Visit www.theatreworks.org/shows/1314-season/littlewomen or call 650-463-1960
Read Karen D'Souza's review in the San Jose Mercury News.
Read Robert Hurwitt's review at SFGate.
There is almost everything to like about the "Little Women" musical TheatreWorks is staging in Palo Alto, but the peak of the pyramid is the integrated excellence of the performances and direction.
A fabulous cast, shaped into truly fine performances by a great director, bringing a dear old story to life, make for a truly special couple of hours in the theater, and warm memories to take home.
There are ten actors in the cast, playing 17 roles, and every performance was excellent.
But Emily Koch as Jo is absolutely not to be missed.
She bursts with life on stage, bringing all of Jo's excitement of loving the work she does as writer her stories of blood and violence and romance with an overwhelming glee that spills out over the audience. And she is an excellent comic actor with exact timing.
This is part of where Robert Kelley's brilliance as a director shines.
Everything an actor does on stage is a choice, and one of Kelley's hallmarks is working with actors to help them find those choices, to find their way into their characters, and using every possible way to tell their stories.
Every show is different it's live, after all but my money says that Koch (pronounced "Cook") will always find the exact split-second to make the little gesture, deliver the line, make the face, that will bring the laughs, and in some moments, bring the tears. Bravura performance.
Also notably impressive, among all the impressive performances, is Arielle Fishman as Amy, the youngest of the March sisters.
Opening the play, the petite Fishman is very much a child, ranging from petulant to charming. But a child, through and through. But by Act II, she is an elegant and self-possessed lady, an icon of refinement. An impressive passage. She was very funny as the tiny but terrifying troll.
And I loved Elizabeth Ward Land's voice, as Marmee. Everybody in the cast sings well, but it's possible her voice is the most impressive as a singer and the most interesting in dialogue. I could not place her accent, her phrasing, but I liked it. Kind of a Midwestern twang, maybe, plus some kind of East coast elegance, with a unique timbre and delivery. Fun to hear.
This musical, first performed on Broadway in 2005, starts with Jo verbally jousting with Christopher Vettel as Professor Bhaer in the boarding house they both inhabit in New York. She is telling him about the wild stories she writes and is trying to get published.
A publisher, horrified the violence of her tales, told her to go home, find a husband and make babies. Wow, does that piss her off. Joe Ragey' beautiful set design includes a translucent background scrim that sometimes serves as a solid backdrop, but sometimes allows with the help of Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting design the audience to see Jo's stories acted out in the background, including her wild, romantic violence, and arguments with a publisher. The song for that scene is "An Operatic Tragedy."
Then the story goes back in time, to when the four sisters and Marmee are facing a poor Christmas while father is away as a chaplain in the Civil War.
Julia Belanoff is sweet and frail as Beth; Sharon Rietkerk is tall and beautiful as Meg. Both are charming and appealing in their roles. Amy is bitter about poverty. Jo declares she will become a famous writer and help the family.
The essence of the story is familiar and true to Louisa May Alcott's original. The four sisters form their lifelong pact of devotion (despite Amy's selfishness), they let the boy next door, Laurie, become their fifth member, and they face adversity together.
Tears will flow for some in the audience. Me, for instance.
Most of the music helps tell the story, and there are many lovely moments and funny moments in the tunes. One or two of the songs I found a little boring, but that is quibbling. Ten cast members, ten excellent singers. I walked out humming tunes from the score.
TheatreWorks Musical Director William Liberatore made the inspired choice to reorchestrate the original score which calls for 13 pieces for five pieces. It was plenty, keeping the music intimate yet powerful in the Lucie Stern Theatre. Liberatore on keyboards, Diane Ryan on French horn, Carol Kutsch on violin, Kris Yenney on cello, and David Peterson on flute, oboe and clarinet.
Richard Farrell was suitably crusty and mean as Mr. Laurence, eventually melting into a sweet old guy. Matt Dengler was charming, sincere, fun and vulnerable as Laurie. Justin Buchs is stern, then romantic, as John Brooke. Elizabeth Palmer was oddly charming as imperious Aunt March, who disappoints the wild Jo, but takes the appearances-loving Amy under her wing. She also is the boarding house landlady, Mrs. Kirk. Vettel was fun to watch as Professor Bhaer, crusty and stiff before his time, confused by falling in love with Jo, who is opposite him in every facet of emotion.
There are big laughs, and a treasure chest of family love in this story, which is probably why "Little Women" has been loved for so long by so many.
A beautiful show, not to be missed. And remember, this is at the Lucie Stern Theatre, which is shared, so the show can't last forever. Get your tickets before it's too late.