This version of Little Women -- The Musical first played at the Littleton Town Hall Arts Center three years ago, and it was voted best new musical by the Denver Drama Critics Circle. The show brings to life Louisa May Alcott's beloved Civil War-era children's book about the four March sisters -- willful Jo, calm, lovely Meg, sprightly, small Amy and fragile Beth. Now playing to sold-out and enthusiastic audiences at the Nomad Theatre in Boulder, the show exemplifies some of the best of community theater -- and also some of its weaknesses.
Directed by Sharlene Wanger, the production features music by Steve Stevens with lyrics and libretto by Bil Rodgers, who has done a good job of condensing an event-filled novel into two and a half hours of stage time. However, some odd juxtapositions are the result. Within a few hectic minutes in the second act, for example, we discover that crotchety old Aunt March has invited Amy to accompany her to Europe and that makes Jo jealous; Beth is becoming frighteningly lethargic; and Jo has had a marriage proposal. Later, after the girls' father has sung a mournful goodbye at Beth's deathbed, Jo sits on the same bed and, barely looking in her failing sister's direction, opens a book she's been given by Professor Bhaer from New York. Lo and behold, what should fall out but a declaration of love? There's great joy. Then Beth, whom we'd thought was already dead, stirs, says a few words and expires: anguish. The script is necessarily episodic, but it seems to me these hairpin emotional turns could be remedied with only a bit of thought.
The melodies range from forgettable to charming, though some of the lyrics need rethinking. There are several fine voices in the cast: Poppie (Gary Cox), away fighting, writes an affecting letter to Marmee (Nancy E. Harris), and the two actors sing the words together in a haunting duet. In one wonderfully funny sequence, the girls leap about the room acting out an absurd opera that Jo has composed. "Meg," the exasperated author, commands at one point, "Stay dead!" "Distance Between Hearts" and "Only a Breath Away" are pleasantly lyrical. There are some rousing and delightful setpieces, too: carolers chanting "I Wish It Could Be Christmas"; an inspired skating sequence; the wedding of Meg and John; and the funny, almost Dickensian "Boarding House Reach."
The acting is uneven, though. Whitney Flinn-Strah flings herself about a bit too much, even for tomboyish Jo. Kelly Stoneberger's fine voice makes up for a certain inexpressiveness in her performance as Meg. David Ambroson looks perfect for Professor Bhaer and boasts a robustly pleasing baritone, though a shaky German accent. Jim Miller brings warmth and humor to the role of Jo's childhood friend and would-be suitor, Laurie, and Annaleigh Swanson is a scene stealer as Amy, evolving from a petulant child singing about how much she hates her sisters in the first act to a poised young woman in the second. BJ Gerhard caricatures the role of Aunt March so egregiously -- positively quivering with rage and frustration as she sings "Don't Follow Your Heart" -- that, in an odd way, she makes it work. Most enchanting of all are the unaffected giggles and screams of young Ashley Dean and Whitney Meer, playing Kitty and Minnie, as Professor Bhaer pretends to chase them.
It's hard to pull off a Victorian death scene these days -- wasn't it Oscar Wilde who said a man needed a heart of stone to read of the death of Charles Dickens's Little Nell without laughing -- and this production doesn't quite manage it; the script, melodies and acting don't rise to the occasion.
Despite all cavils, there is a captivating warmth to Nomad's Little Women. It's good to see the work of local artists, to watch a homespun musical for Christmas rather than a glitzy touring production and to hear people with decent voices singing unmiked.
Boulder's late, lamented Troubadour Books is holding a sale at the Nomad Theatre on December 16 and 22, from noon to 4 p.m. Books on theater, music, dance, film and writing are available; 75 percent of the proceeds will go to support the Nomad. For information on donating items, call 303-530-3714.
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