The musical version of Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War classic “Little Women” is such wholesome, family-friendly entertainment that I wish it had a little more pizzazz to make it linger in the memory.
You can’t fault the production that just opened at Crown Uptown Theatre. Director Matthew Rumsey, music director Jesse Warkentin and an able and attractive cast keep you smiling, sometimes chuckling and occasionally misting up at all the right moments as Alcott’s tale unfolds, telling the story of four sisters coming of age during hard times while their father is away as a Union Army chaplain.
But this 2005 adaptation by composer Jason Howland, lyricist Mindi Dickstein and writer Allan Knee is curiously bland for such a universally beloved story. It’s not a bad show. It’s pleasant and tuneful, with performances that are often vocally thrilling – a tribute to Rumsey’s great cast.
But it seems more like a Cliffs Notes summary set to easy-listening Muzak, which falls a little short of classic. It simply doesn’t make much of a lasting impression.
The salvation lies in the performances, however, and they certainly make this production – a first for Wichita at the professional level – well worth your time.
Brittney Morton, a New Yorker making her Crown debut, is irrepressibly spunky as Jo March, a free-thinking tomboy who swears she will never marry because she is “not built for gowns.” She aspires to write swashbuckling, blood-and-guts tales for popular magazines but makes her biggest splash when she writes about her sisters’ lives, loves, losses and devotion to each other – which, of course, becomes “Little Women.”
Morton is a dynamo who probably could generate enough power to light the stage on her own. But she has the grace and poise to keep that enthusiasm from spinning out of control. And, boy, can she sing. Her crisp and clear voice has the sensitivity to project just the right emotion, whether joking with her sisters (“Our Finest Dreams”) or yearning for a career (“Fire Within Me”) or finally finding unexpected love (“Small Umbrella in the Rain”).
Oddly, her highlight number, “Astonishing,” is a power anthem unlike anything else in the score that comes out of nowhere to close Act 1 with a bang (think “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked”). It’s an unexpected jolt but a welcome one.
Also worth noting is Stephanie Dennis as Marmee, the girls’ wise mom, who can break your heart with the loveliness of her lament at being a virtually single parent (“Here Alone”) and the motherly pride in her daughters’ dreams (“Days of Plenty”).
Playing the other sisters are Natalie Swanner as the patient and docile Meg, Lindsay Woppert as the guileless and introspective Beth and Catherine Bortomeo as the bratty, self-absorbed baby of the family, Amy. All are charming and likable in their own distinct ways. Swanner and Bortomeo reveal snatches of opera-power voices when the tunes allow, and Woppert is sweetly haunting about death without being morbid in “Some Things Are Meant to Be.”
Playing the men in their lives are Nick Anastasia (another New Yorker making his Crown debut) as Laurie, the playful, puppyish boy next door who has a crush on Jo; Joe Consiglio as Laurie’s stuffy tutor, Mr. Brooke, who loosens up when he spies eldest sister Meg; and Donald Winsor as Jo’s scholarly writing adviser and secret admirer, Professor Bhaer. All are ideally cast with terrific voices.
Anastasia, particularly, is a lot of fun to watch as a clueless but eager guy trying to hold his own in this female-centric tale.
The two-story set by award-winning Gregory R. Crane is a fantasy abstraction that cleverly incorporates a giant “Little Women” book cover as a versatile centerpiece that is sometimes a wall, sometimes a bookcase or other architectural element. The sturdy props, from overstuffed chairs to two different pianos, provide the necessary realism, along with sumptuous, big-skirted period gowns by Kathy Page-Hauptman.
Giving the set a rich glow is the lighting by Dan Harmon. Most effective are the attic scenes – beautifully bathed in warm, mottled, amber sunlight – where Jo yearns and learns to be a writer for the ages.