Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Little Women, based on the Broadway production, is this holiday season's production from Artistry. The appeal of Alcott's story is still evident. Jo March, the author's alter ego and the center of the piece, is a spunky, likeable young woman with a rebel's spirit and aspirations which, for a female, are well ahead of her time, the time being during and just after the American Civil War. She rejects the idea of marriage, and wants to live without depending on a man's support. Her fertile imagination fabricates bold tales of adventure with sword-wielding heroes and villains, thought to be the province of male fantasies. On top of that, she wears pantssomething unheard of for a woman of any age at that time.
Jo intends to become a hugely successful writer and thus able to support herself and her three sisters. Those three illustrate other trajectories a girl might choose as they grow into womanhood. Meg, the oldest, seeks the kind of love that settles into stable domesticity, with husband, children and home. Frail, desperately shy Beth lives as a spectator of other's lives, but her abundant kindness and the generosity of her heart are enough to lay out her life course. Youngest sister Amy is self-centered, impatient, and pines away for the finer things in lifefashionable clothes, trips abroad, grand parties, and moving up the social ladder.
Offering two more images of mid-18th century womanhood is the girls' staunch mother Marmee, who runs the household on her own while her minister husband serves as a chaplain in the Union army. She also finds time for dedication to charity. Finally, we have Aunt March, who lives fully independently with wealth she never apologizes for or explains. Aunt March's credo is that a woman must first and foremost have financial security, whether by marrying "well," inheritance, or her own industry.
Little Women is modest in scale, with a cast of ten and no ensemble to expand song and dance segments. The musical's book by Allan Knee is the stronger element of the show. It includes most of the significant incidents fans of the novel or films will recall, but he gives short shrift to Meg, Beth and Amy's characters. While in any Little Women, Jo is the strongest character whose arc we see most completely, past renditions of Alcott's work give a better feel for what motivates each of her sisters, and we see them act in pursuit of their own goals. Here we see them through the lens of their effect on Jo. While a focus on Jo is an acceptable story in its own right, the idea of the strong bonds among four sisters who each have remarkable qualities is diminished in the process.
Knee and his creative partners, composer Jason Howland and lyricist Mindi Dickstein, also err by opening each act with the adult Jo narrating one of her stories of daring-do adventure, the scene morphing into full-blown musical numbers. The stories are fine in themselves, but, in a show that runs long, are tradeoffs for giving us more depth into the other sisters. We are better served by a scene that frames the song "Our Finest Dreams," showing Jo directing her sisters and Laurie, the charming boy next door, in a dramatic production of one of her stories. The substance here is not about Jo's far-fetched tale, but the interaction among these young people.
On the whole, the score for Little Women is serviceable but not memorable, with the strongest numbers being "Here Alone" and "Days of Plenty" (the two songs given to Marmee, revealing her inner struggles beneath the calming maternal surface), the tender "Some Things Are Meant to Be" (song by Jo and Beth on the cusp of deep loss), and, best of all, "Astonishing", which gives us a glimpse into Jo's mind as she works out a creed by which she will live.
Little Woman is in good hands at Artistry, with director Tamara Kangas Erickson moving the show's transitions smoothly, allowing time for reflection where it is needed but otherwise maintaining a brisk pace. Erickson is also a noted choreographer, and with no choreographer given credit, no doubt devised the limited amount of dance worked into the show, mainly where it would occur as part of the narrative, as when Marmee, Jo and Beth teach Meg to dance before attending her first ball.
The production's biggest asset may be Madeline Trumble's performance as Jo March. Trumble is new to Twin Cities' stages, but carries with her lots of experience, having played on Broadway in Newsies and in lead roles on national tours of Wicked, Mary Poppins and The King and I. Her strong presence suits Jo's fiery determination well, she persuasively conveys Jo's wide span of feelings, delivers humor with aplomb, and has a strong, crystal clear voice.
Kersten Rodau brings more strength to the production as Marmee. She conveys the requisite nurturing and calming presence, and her warm baritone is perfect for her featured moments. Angela Timberman's take on Aunt March is more of a caricature than a character, but nonetheless quite entertaining. Camryn Buelow, Shinah Hey, and Lauren Hugh as sisters Meg, Amy and Beth, respectively, all do fine work, and their voices, along with Trumble's, harmonize well in the show's several sisterly musical moments.
There are four male roles, and all are played quite well, though there is never doubt that the show is not about them. Most central is Laurie, that boy next door, played by Bradley Johnson, whose boyish good looks, high octane energy, and sweet tenor voice suit the character well. Matthew Hall is perfectly charming, in a shy manner, as Mr. John Brooke, Laurie's tutor who forms a loving bond with Meg. Dwight Xaveir Leslie portrays the professor who encourages the adult Jo in her pursuit of a publisher with staid dignity, then unexpectedly unleashes emotion in "How I Am," beautifully sung. Lastly, Brian Frutiger does an admirable job as Laurie's father, a lonely, grouch old man who finds redemption through the good cheer of the little women next door.
The set devised by Leazah Behrens creates abstractions of the various locations, with sliding panels and a few pieces of furniture getting the job done. Rich Hamson's costumes are quite suitable for Civil War era characters, and distinguish ever so subtly between the temperaments of the four March sisters and Aunt March's higher social status. Mike Grogan's lighting design and Alexander Pikiben's sound design both contribute to the production's cohesiveness. Also, a shout out must go to hair and make-up designer Paul Toni for whipping up just the right hair styles for each of the March women.
The well-loved novel "Little Women" has maintained a steady presence for over a century and a half, and no doubt will continue to be read, viewed, and listened to for many years to come. This Broadway musical is, frankly, not the strongest adaptation of the work, but it is an agreeable show with many pleasing moments. Artistry's production offers solid workmanship all around and a shining performance by Madeline Trumble. It is an excellent show especially for adolescents girls seeking affirmation for the pursuit of their own dreams.
Little Women runs through November 28, 2021, at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: $52.00; Seniors (Age 62 and up): $47; Youth (age 12 and under): $20.00; Next Generation (age 13-30): $25.00. Discounts are available for season subscribers. For tickets and information, please call 952-563-8375 or visit artistrymn.org.
Book: Allan Knee; Music: Jason Howland; Lyrics: Mindi Dickstein; Director: Tamara Kangas Erickson; Music Director and Conductor: Anita Ruth; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Lighting Design: Mike Grogan; Sound Design: Alexander Pikiben; Hair and Makeup Design: Paul Toni; Properties Manager and Scenic Associate: Katie Phillips; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhoades; Associate Stage Designer: Leahzah Behrens; Associate Director and Artistic Associate: Maureen Sherman-Mendez; Consulting Producer: Kelli Foster Warder; Production Manager & Technical Director: Chris Carpenter; General Manager & Associate Producer: Aaron Wheelers.
Cast: Camryn Buelow (Meg March), Brian Frutiger (Mr. Laurence), Matthew Hall (Mr. John Brooke), Shinah Hey (Amy March), Lauren Hugh (Beth March), Bradley Johnson (Laurie Laurence), Dwight Xaveir Leslie (Professor Bhaer), Kersten Rodau (Marmee March), Angela Timberman (Aunt March, Mrs. Kirk), Madeline Trumble (Jo March).