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A CurtainUp Philadelphia Review
Little Women, The Broadway Musical
I confess that I went to review the show thinking this could be a good musical to recommend to parents who want to pack the preteens off on a Sunday afternoon so they can go out somewhere else themselves. BRT is a professional theater, but it has been inconsistent, plus it's located a bit out in the sticks. . . a ride up I-95 from Philadelphia. Outlying regional theater offerings can sometimes be satisfying for kids and neophytes but not so much for sophisticated adult theater goers.
I was taken by surprise. The musical is definitely for the grownup set, although kids might enjoy it too, and this new production is something special. Everything about it is quality.
With Little Women there will be a homespun feel, but this is no amateur hour. Members of the 5-piece orchestra play 10 instruments, and if you count the percussion trappings, it's more like 15. The musicians, with impeccable timing, do a great job with the remarkable variety of tunes. Surprisingly, these songs don't all sound the same, like tedious variations on the same notes, which is one of the problems with so many other newer musicals.
The sweet rendition of the little ditty "Off to Massachusetts" with Beth (Kim Carson) and the stern Mr. Lawrence (James Van Treuren) was an audience favorite. There are other cute numbers like "Could You?". In fact all the tunes were wonderful with the possible exception of the anticipated show stopper, the complex "Astonishing," which wants to cover too much territory, both story-wise and vocally.
Jennie Eisenhower as spunky Jo March easily carries the lead role. She is a strong actress — grounded, nuanced, and vibrant. All in this cast are amazingly talented and have good voices. Particularly notable are Elisa Matthews as Meg and Leslie Becker, strong and emotive as Marmee. Stephen Schellhardt's Laurie positively sparkles in "Take a Chance on Me" and Cathy Newman's Aunt March is wonderfully Wilde-like. Amy (Kara Dombrowski) and Mr. John Brooke (Steven Nicholas) are charmers. The Professor (Michael Sharon) and Jo's performance of "Small Umbrella in the Rain" recalls the marvelous Mirabell and Millamant, strong-willed lover archetypes in The Way of the World.
There's not one dead second on stage due to Susan D. Atkinson's masterful direction and Karen Getz's fluid, light-touch choreography. Smooth as silk transitions are aided by Roman Tatarowicz's revolving set, which does everything a set needs to do. Millie Hiibel's costumes are superb, and the overall staging is simply el primo.
A few anachronisms stand out. One instance might be when Jo says, "I would so respect your opinion," which sounds less like Civil War era talk and more like current youth-speak. But such moments are minor in this rather free adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 1869 novel.
Another concern is that in its various presentations over the last 7 years, songs have been added, moved, and subtracted. BRT's counter-intuitive choice to add once-deleted pieces back on to a show that already is too long is perplexing. Rather than adding, the production would benefit from losing 20 minutes. While it is truly a rewarding experience, it's a long haul and the audience begins to tire toward the end. Better to leave 'em the energy to deliver the much deserved ovation.
With its perfect casting right across the board, the fine delineation of the four sisters, and Ms. Eisenhower's charisma and poise, BRT's Little Women, The Broadway Musical has panache, dignity, and heart. Bristol Riverside Theatre may be tucked away in little Bristol, PA, but this production is not just good enough for the locals, it's world class.