Little Women

Written on November 16th, 2004

Little Women

Directed by Anne Allan
Written by Louisa May Alcott
Music and lyrics by Jim Betts
Book by Nancy Early
Musical direction by Jaqueline Sadler
Performed by Susan Gilmour
Victoria Playhouse Petrolia
November 16 to December 4, 2004
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Classic story comes to life on stage

If you’ve read the classic book “Little Women”, then you’ll enjoy seeing the characters come to life on stage at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia. And even if you’ve never read the book, you can appreciate the wonderful singing in this show. All the novel’s action has been compressed into one year, which runs from Christmas to Christmas, making this show a great way to welcome the festive season.

“Little Women” is Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale set in New England in the 1860’s. The four March sisters and their beloved mother, Marmee, have fallen on hard times since father went off to the Civil War. But they manage to keep their spirits up, despite a meddling rich aunt. The girls – impractical Meg, dramatic and passionate Jo, quiet, shy Beth, and spoiled Amy – make friends with the neighbour’s visiting grandson, Laurie, and his tutor. And while the show gets a little maudlin at times, it is saved by the cast’s powerful singing voices, which are anything but sappy.

This is a Canadian musical version of “Little Women” and it was impressive to see the authors in the audience on opening night. Jim Betts wrote the music and lyrics, and Nancy Early wrote the book. It will be interesting to hear how this compares with the Broadway version, which is opening soon.

This cast is likely one of the best and most experienced to be assembled at VPP. Susan Gilmour as Marmee commands the stage with her rich voice. She comes to VPP for the first time with a very impressive resume, including playing Fantine in Les Miserables on Broadway and the world tour. As well, she has been on stage at the Stratford Festival and most other noted Canadian theatres, in numerous lead roles.

Regan Thiel is the crowd pleaser – almost over-the-top as Jo, the very dramatic thespian, in the first act, but then shows how Jo matures in the second act. Her talent for comedy is evident. Erin McGrath has a sweet voice and plays the shy Beth very well. Melissa Peters, a 13-year-old grade 8 student at Pearson School for Arts in London, plays Amy, and more than holds her own on stage with the professionals. She is a talent to watch for, both in singing and acting. Mike Nadajewski is endearing as Laurie, while Emily Boutet as Meg and Jay Davis as the tutor John Brooke make a good couple. Lorraine Foreman plays a very annoying Aunt March and VPP favourite Brian McKay rounds out the cast as Mr. Laurence. Petrolia student Becky Phillips plays Sallie Gardiner, and six local adults and children are in the chorus.

As memory serves (it’s been a while since I read the book), the story is a very good representation of the novel, and the writers have done well to compress it into one show. The only part that didn’t translate well onto stage: the ice skating scene is …..well, hokey. If the stage is indeed a frozen pond, how come some people are skating and others find it too slippery to walk on, yet others walk right across with no problem? And the fake skating – a little too fake.

Musical director Jacqueline Sadler deserves credit for melding together all these strong voices, as well as accompanying them on the piano. Lighting by Renee Brode is excellent, appropriately muted. While the sets are impressive, the many changes don’t go as quickly as desired, and seeing the stagehands always diminishes the mood.

Get into the spirit of a Victorian Christmas by seeing “Little Women”. The songs, while not familiar, are both beautiful and delightful, and the singing voices make the trip worthwhile.

Also, a reminder – theatre tickets make great Christmas gifts – both VPP and Huron Country Playhouse have announced great line-ups for next summer, and the Grand has some very good shows coming up.

“Little Women” continues with eight shows a week at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until December 4. Call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or (519) 882-1221 for tickets.

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