Eleven years ago composer Kim Oler and lyricist Alison Hubbard won the Richard Rodgers Prize for their show Little Women. This
should have led to a Broadway opening. Instead, their score was taken
over by librettist Allan Knee, who brought in new people, Jason Howland
and Mindy Dickstein, for another version of Little Women that
opened with Maureen McGovern on Jan. 23, 2005, a resounding flop.
Syracuse University Drama Department musical theater specialist Marie
Kemp found out about the Oler-Hubbard version and workshopped it here
last year. And now, voilà, a Broadway opening for Little Women on East Genesee Street.
The score and lyrics that Kemp rescued
turn out to be highly sophisticated classic Broadway, memorable tunes
driven by full-blooded emotion. Following the examples of Rodgers and
Hammerstein, songs regularly grow out of the action and help to define
character. A surprising amount come with multiple parts and complex
harmonies. The first two numbers in Act I, for example, involve all
four March sisters and give us handles to their emotional makeup, as if
we did not get them from the dialogue.
Forward, March!: Clockwise from top left, Sarah Shahinian, Marie Kemp, Mary Kate Morrissey, Aisling Halpin and Jenaha McLearn in Syracuse Stage’s Little Women. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
As a lyricist of the post-Sondheim era,
Alison Hubbard delivers precise wording with evidence of subtle
wordplay so dear to the master. Yet for expressing the language of the
heart, of unashamed feeling, Oler could keep company with Harold Arlen.
It’s too early to tell if any of the songs will have a later life in
cabaret, but at least one, “I Have a Garden,” near the end of the
second act, was written to lift you out of your seats.
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868)
is one of those rare 19th-century novels that many people have read on
their own, not waiting for it to be assigned in class. Once dismissed
as a young adult trifle, its literary reputation has risen in recent
years, bolstered in part by the women’s-lit industry, but even more by
four successful filmed versions from 1933 (with Katharine Hepburn as
Jo), 1947 (June Allyson), 1978 (Susan Dey for TV), and 1994 (with
Winona Ryder), not to mention Mark Adamo’s acclaimed opera, seen in
Syracuse last spring. Unlike Knee’s book for the 2005 turkey, Sean
Hartley’s book here hews fairly closely to Alcott, making this a
divergent narrative touching on personal fulfillment, the exigencies of
fashion, war and death as well as a celebration of the family.
Following the novel more closely raises
a challenge to scenic designer Troy Hourie and lighting designer Dawn
Chiang, as action moves from house to house in Concord, Mass., and on
to different locations in New York City and eventually Paris. Locations
are evoked by windows or panels descending from the flies, and we see
players only in silhouette during rapid scene changes. The nearly
three-hour action is never slowed by furniture or subplot.
While far from affluent, the Marches are
what we would call today left-wing intellectuals, as the paterfamilias
(Joseph Whelan) confers with Ralph Waldo Emerson, just as his real-life
model Bronson Alcott did. His wife, known as Marmee (Marie Kemp), is
more independent than other women of that time. That independence,
along with the father’s intellect, descends to the eldest March
daughter, Josephine or Jo (Sarah Shahinian), who gambols on the stage
with hoydenish charm. Owning nothing to any of the filmed Jos,
Shahinian and director Anthony Salatino reshape the character into an
anticipation of the “new woman” of two generations later, indifferent
to fashion and convention and determined to find her own voice, as in
“I Do Not Need a Man.”
All the sisters have color and depth.
Romantic Meg (Mary Kate Morrissey) crosses the class barrier by
marrying an impecunious tutor John (Benjamin Michael), while shy and
sickly Beth (Jenaha McLearn) is allowed some of the deepest, most
plangent music, as in “The Music of Our Home.” Initially the youngest
Amy (Aisling Halpin), a drop-dead beauty, comes off the worst as a
selfish prig, but by the second act she is the one to essay the
greatest turn in character.
The male love interests make a study in
contrasts. The neighbor boy Laurie (Dominique Stasiulis) comes on too
strong with his passion for Jo, but still delivers the strongest
musical number in the first act, “Fly at Me/Never Fly Away,” a duet
with Jo. His goodness is rewarded with second-act surprises. Not
appearing until the second act is Jo’s real love, Professor Bhaer
(David Studwell), here played entirely different from his cinematic and
operatic antecedents. Despite the tenor in the powerful duet with Jo,
“Doors are Opening,” Studwell’s professor is a comic eccentric, perhaps
inspired by late-in-life photographs of Albert Einstein at Princeton.
He also scores with Shahinian’s Jo during the witty duets “How’s That
for a Story?” and “I’m Not Perfect.”
Sold-out performances indicate that Little Women will
be a feel-good holiday hit for Syracuse Stage, and it will be a hot
topic of conversation for the next several weeks. But if the show is
going to have a life after Genesee Street, something is going to have
to be done with the last 20 minutes of Hartley’s book, which feels as
though it’s going to end three times. In the midst of this comes
Marmee’s big solo, “I Have a Garden,” a heartfelt anthem along the
lines of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” at the end of The Sound of Music. The moment is doubly moving knowing the singer, Marie Kemp, is also the force that brought Little Women here. When Hartley finds a better setting for it, “Garden” will moisten every eye in the house.
Two collaborators culminate a decade of
working together on the holiday show, starting with music director
Dianne Adams McDowell, polishing the wit and plumbing the lush depths
of a brand new score. Director-choreographer Anthony Salatino’s refined
hand is visible in every scene, especially in Jo’s movement and dance
that mark her differences from her loving family. The talent on this
team is costumer Tracy Dorman, who has worked on several operatic
productions a well as flamboyant Syracuse Stage offerings like Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Her eye-filling designs fit scrupulously into their time.
In holidays past, the big midwinter show
has looked like a Syracuse Stage enterprise with SU Drama students
hoofing on as obliging choruses. This year important roles go to
students, many of them current stars in the department, like Mary Kate
Morrissey as Meg, last seen as Ado Annie in October’s Oklahoma! The
most important role is taken by a national professional, Sarah
Shahinian, who seizes the fullness of Jo as the great role it is, as
Hepburn knew it was. Elsewhere it’s heartening to see top performances
from local professionals, like David Studwell of Ithaca College, as
well as Joseph Whelan, Leslie Noble and Malcolm Ingram. Stealing scenes
so deftly as Aunt March is Sandra Karas, long a beloved player at
Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. Then again, as secretary-treasurer
of Actors’ Equity, Karas is both national and local.
Word is out that SU chancellor Nancy
Cantor has commanded that the people at East Genesee Street should
strive for national rather than just regional prominence. With Little Women Syracuse Stage and the Syracuse University Drama Department have delivered on that promise.
This production runs through Dec. 27. See Times Table for information.
Broadway bound?: Dominique Stasiulis and Aisling Halpin in Little Women.