Saturday, February 25, 2012
By Tom Wachunas
“…I will blaze until I find my time and place. I will be fearless, surrendering modesty and grace. I will not disappear without a trace. I’ll start a riot, be anything but quiet…I’ll be astonishing.” - lyrics from “Astonishing” by Mindi Dickstein (music by Jason Howland), from the musical, “Little Women” –
Over the past several years of seeing the mainstage productions of Canton’s Players Guild Theatre (now celebrating its 80th season), I’ve been wowed every time by great stage literature – both dramatic and musical – presented with wondrously impressive, fiery professionalism that far exceeded ‘standard’ expectations of a community theatre organization. But expectations in this context can be fragile, and too easily built upon the consistency of past performances. And so it is that I found the current production of the musical “Little Women,” directed here by John M. Russell, to be unusually unsatisfying on a few levels.
First, and perhaps most important, is the art itself. Allan Knee’s book adaptation greatly short-changes the rich depth of character and story development in Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 beloved classic novel about the March sisters and their mother fending for themselves in Concord, Massachusetts, while father is away fighting in the Civil War. The episodic, truncated structure of the musical, with its largely unmemorable melodies and lyrics, makes it difficult to sustain lasting emotional connection to the characters. For most of the show, neither the bright live accompaniment (provided by an excellent seven-piece orchestra directed by Steve Parsons), nor even the cast’s most fervent performing, fully conquers this shortcoming.
There were, to be sure, some notable performances on opening night, both in singing and acting - just not enough of them, and not where you might expect them to be. You would expect, for example, the central character of tomboy Jo - the feisty, blunt, but jovial sister who dreams of being a world-class writer - to be a truly commanding singer. But in that role, Michelle Rae Chaho – an infectiously energetic actress (particularly as she narrates/mimes her hilariously goofy “operatic tragedies”) - lacked the vocal chops to pull off her character’s dreamy urgency in a convincing or consistent manner. Closing the somewhat sluggish first act, her big solo, “Astonishing,” was anything but, and hardly a show stopper. Similarly, Rose Medley, for all the sincerity and matronly warmth she brings to her role of Marmee (mother), seemed a bit too forced and tentative in her singing.
Not so with Jo’s sisters. Each of them – Cassidy Tompkins as Meg, Brooke Upholzer as Beth, and Rachel Wolin as Amy – brings a remarkably sonorous clarity and soaring verve to their ensemble harmonies, particulary in the invigorating “Five Forever.” Therein they welcome Laurie (Jo’s would-be suitor), played with intrepid boyish enthusiasm by John Gluckner, as an honorary fifth member of the March family. Eminently entertaining, too, is Teresa Houston as the worldly Aunt March, obsessed with social etiquette. Her marvelously animated manner and crisp vocals bring a quasi-operatic panache to the proceedings.
One memorably charming scene during Act One transpires in the period-sounding song, “Off To Massachusetts.” Rich neighbor Mr. Laurence (grandfather of Laurie), played by Merle Smith, effectively softens his stuffy, gruff demeanor and sings a delightfully lilting duet with the gentle Beth playing piano.
Another of the evening’s most compelling and tender vocal performances comes during the more engaging second act, with the song “Some Things Are Meant To Be,” as Jo and the ailing Beth fly a kite along the sands of Cape Cod.
The musical is too empty of passages like this one. Its emotional authenticity rises above the generally cosmetic, cookie-cutter ‘charm’ of the show, and is a truer reflection of the potent charisma in Alcott’s original story.
The Canton Players Guild Theatre presents “Little Women: The Musical” at the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue North, THROUGH MARCH 11. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets can be ordered at 330 – 453-7617, or at www.playersguildtheatre.com
Photo, courtesy Players Guild Theatre: (front, left to right) Michelle Rae Choho, Rose Medley, Rachel Wolin; (back, standing) Cassidy Tompkins and Brooke Upholzer