Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Daddy Long Legs
This Little Women began life with a workshop, a full production and another workshop at Duke University, 2000-2004. It was produced on Broadway in 2005 where it expired after a run of a few months.
This show is sabotaged by a score which I would describe as uninspired. The songs do not immediately let the audience know the time and place of the setting, and most of them lack dramatic specificity. One of the strongest songs in the score, "Some Things Are Meant to Be," is so generic that it could be dropped into a dozen or more so-so musicals and it would fit. In a duet for the second romantic couple, Meg and Mr. Brook, the dramatic balance shifts so badly that I got confused as to which couple is primary. Both acts open with sequences meant to show the audience how over the top Jo's early writings are. Both are musically uninteresting. One of these would be sufficient to make the dramatic point, but two are overkill and the one that opens the second act is much too long. The book isn't much help, as the characters are so sketchily drawn that the audience doesn't really take them to their hearts.
Considering the weakness of the material, the cast give it their all. All four sisters are strongly cast. Eliza Engle plays Jo, the oldest sister, somewhat between a tomboy and an early feminist. Ms. Engle sings and acts very well, but could use a touch more charisma (the part was tailored for a major star, Sutton Foster). Shannon Wright is the next oldest sister, Meg, the least showy part. Ms. Wright does well by it, and her singing is quite lovely, which is a plus in "More Than I Am," a duet with Meg's soon to be husband, Mr. Brooke. Miranda Wolf is warm and kind as Beth and sings with the best voice on stage, pure and lovely. Belle Babcock plays youngest sister Amy. She played a teenager last year in 13 so I am guessing she is in the age range of the character in the first act. She rises to the occasion in the second act as a more worldly young woman after a trip abroad with her aunt, played by Alice Byrne.
Ellen Kleinschmidt plays beloved Marmee with warmth and strength. Adam Fuentes cuts a handsome figure as Laurie, nephew of neighbor Mr. Laurence and attracted to Jo early on, though he eventually he marries Amy. Tanner Fults plays Laurie's tutor and eventually Meg's husband, Mr. Brooke. Brian Kleinschmidt is handsome yet awkward as Professor Bhaer, who eventually wins Jo's heart. Randall Hill plays Mr. Laurence, curmudgeon at first, family friend in the end.
On opening night the cast may have been tired after tech week. There were some noticeable problems with singing from almost everyone, which I suspect will improve as they catch up on their rest.
Aaron Cassette leads the orchestra, and his band plays well for him, except for a couple of sour notes at the very beginning.
Scott Keys directs the production well, assisted by choreographer Vanessa Russo. The melodramas near the top of both acts are lively and spill out into the auditorium in a positive way. The rest of the show is equally well staged and performances by his cast are all strong.
Georgina Willmott has designed eye-popping costumes, Caleb Carrier a sensational set, which perfectly shows a farmhouse deteriorating from lack of maintenance, and Patrick Bedell lights everything beautifully. The technical elements all contribute to making this production better than it might have been.
Young audiences can take this opportunity to meet the March family for the first time, thereby propelling them toward reading Louisa May Alcott's classic novel.
Manatee Players presents Little Women, through April 8, 2018, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-748-0111 or visit manateeplayers.com.