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Christopher Columbus! Dexter’s Encore presents lovely “Little Women” (Review) February 5, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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Watching lead actress Katie Hardy’s transformation from teenage Jo Marsh to the observant adult writer that looks back at it all is one of the joys in this intimate staging of the recent Broadway musical LITTLE WOMEN. In a production that is generally well-cast, she stands out in the role originally created by Sutton Foster in a way that shines brightly on Encores stage. But what happens around her is the stuff that makes it all so interesting.

Those of us who have read the book know that the many movie and stage versions of the story are largely hit-or-miss; and the same can be said of this 2005 musical version: plot points are catapulted, omitted, or made greater or less than their relevance in the book. Sometimes it all feels a bit like connecting the dots as one story leads to another and we race to the penultimate drama including Beth (won’t give it away here for the handful of people who don’t know the story) and our ultimate happy ending. There’s a whole misbegotten trip to Cape Cod that doesn’t really exist, but it works to wring the requisite tears out of the demographic teenage girl audience, and on the Broadway stage was the only scene which allowed cyclorama light to shine through the gloom to counterbalance the drama.

That being said, this production in Dexter is a sure-handed directorial debut for Steve DeBruyne, who does particularly good work with the intimate moments of the show (and there are plenty of them).  The Marsh sisters scenes together are all one would expect, and sometimes a bit more. Sure plot points are dropped like hot potatoes in the “Can’t we all just get along” theme that develops early on in the proceedings. But it’s all for one and one for all.

Another breakout performances comes from Rusty Mewha as Professor Bhaer, and his “Small Umbrella in the Rain” with Hardy near the end of the show is the true musical core of the show. An earlier moment between Jo and Beth (Cara AnnMarie in a lovely performance) “Some Things are Meant to Be” is beautifully staged and acted in one, and the nearness to the audience makes the emotion universal. Hardy’s own meant-to-be-showstopper moment “Astonishing” closes out the first act with a wallop down front and center.

Anne Bauman displays excellent acting chops as Aunt March (although shouldn’t have been used as Mrs. Kirk later in the production). Thalia Schramm (Meg) and Madison Deadman (Amy) complete the Marsh sister quartet admirably.

Not all of the casting is as good. There are age disparities in some of the performers, and a jarring performance of Laurie by Sean Widener who seems to be acting in his own musical at times. The energy in some of those scenes is skewed toward farce, and it feels out of place.

And where Leo Babcock’s period-perfect set, and Colleen Meyer’s costumes are lovely; the music aspects of this musical are not. The full orchestra is pared down to two keyboards and two percussion, and it sounds anemic and under-nourished. The energy required to support the large ballads and songs dissipates, and more than one number ends with a fizzle rather than with a bang. Musical Director Jill Quagliata does better work with her soloists and duets than with the full vocal support required in larger ensemble numbers. Note the fizzle at the end of “Our Finest Dreams” for example. Stage picture = pretty. Vocal support – pfitzzz. For sure, one of the problems here is the actors’s inability to see the conductor during this very difficult score.

Lighting is also hit or miss. Actors valiantly hit their marks, while lights struggle to keep up; and at times there are no transitions or fades — full darkness leads to full stage up lighting; spotlights suddenly appear with no crossfade in the background (and in the case of “Astonishing” too early). Scene changes take a bit too long and add five minutes to a show that is already long (2:50 on opening night — the Broadway production ran 2:40). Granted, some of this can not be avoided in a theater that can not fly scenery.

But that brings me back to Katie Hardy. She is the emotional, vocal, and acting core of this show, and her work as Jo is excellent. The intimacy of the Encore stage allows her emotions to show throughout; from perplexed to agitated; from teen to adult. By the time Jo and Professor Bhaer stand beneath their umbrella and sing of differences “as a woman and a man”, her ability to convey contained emotion and Mewha’s ability to suddenly explode with pent-up energy create one of Encore’s finest musical moments.

LITTLE WOMEN continues at the Encore Musical Theater Company through February 27th. For tickets call 734-268-6200 or visit theencoretheatre.org

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Comments

1. Alter Nitview - February 7, 2011

I would be curious as to this reviewers technical musical background. I happened to have found the orchestra’s balance to both the size of the venue and the absence of individual amplification of the actors absolutely complimentary. As a seasoned attendee of musical theatre productions and a well-versed actor, again, the balance was very very good. The music provided sound and solid reinforcement while setting the tonal stage for the performers to shine and not in any way preventing the listener from taking in the dramatic message behind every song.

The direction of the show was obviously outstanding as evidenced by the standing ovation offered on opening night. Steve DeBruyne did an outstanding job directing a very wonderful cast of professionals.

Once again, a great show at the Encore.

2. ronannarbor - February 7, 2011

This writers professional musical background is clearly listed under the “about” tab.


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