Thursday, April 17, 2008

Little Women review

City Circle - City Circle has done a number of shows at the Iowa Children’s Museum. Some have felt a little strange in that setting. I’m thinking of City Circle Shorts with its adult themes. However, Little Women the Musical is a perfect collaboration between the two organizations and a model for the way in which non-profits can work together to provide education and entertainment to our community. But beyond the kudos for good teamwork, the show itself is one audiences of all ages will enjoy.

After returning home from the play, I pulled my copy of the novel off my bookshelf and was surprised to find the book is much longer than I had remembered. The musical does a pretty good job of paring it down and giving the audience the heart of the story, which is Jo’s journey and the love of the sisters. The one exception to that I discuss later on.

Nora Scherschel is wonderful as Jo. She embodies the rebel while still making family loyalty her most attractive trait. The other sisters are all excellent as well. Only Megan Sands seems a little miscast as the sickly and quiet Beth. Beth is supposed to be the sister who blends into the background. Overall, Sands does a good job showing us the sweetness of the character, but I never once believed she was ill or enjoyed being in the background.

Offering a truly outstanding performance was Ann Muilenberg as Marmee, the sisters' mother. Her song Here Alone was a highlight of the evening. Anderson Lamp's portrayal of Laurie was spot on and Roxanne Gustaveson provided the most laughs as Aunt March.

I do have to tell you, though, that if you see the show this weekend, you will not see the same Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy that I saw. There's an entirely different cast for the lead actors this coming weekend. Therefore, I will devote the rest of this review to the elements of the production that will not change.

One has to mention the set. It was wonderfully simple and complex. A piano slides out when needed. The background changes unobtrusively and without slowing the action down. The back of the performance space can be lit with different color lights, emphasizing the emotion of that scene. They even fly a kite! Michael Blake deserves many kudos for creating a wonderfully flexible set.

The music is also excellent. I was completely unfamiliar with the songs, but a number of them stuck with me after the show. Particularly nice are Beth and Mr. Brook's duet Off to Massachusetts and the show stopping production Five Forever.

The supporting cast, which you will see this weekend, were also strong. Twelve-year-old Amy Ostrem as the Lead Troll stole the show when she was onstage. She's one to watch in the future. Also fun was the sword fighting, which was perfectly choreographed by Nate Kula of Rage Theatrics.

Director Chris Okiishi keeps the action moving from scene to scene. Sometimes it was difficult to see everything, but that's more a fault of the chair set up than the direction. Stagger the chairs so we're not looking at the back of the head of the person in front of us!

The only criticism I have of the show is its length and the starting time. At two hours and forty minutes, it may be a bit of a challenge for younger kids, especially with an 8 pm start time. I didn't bring my seven-year-old daughter to the show because she'd have been asleep on my lap by 10:00 pm. For a kid friendly show, perhaps a 7 pm start time would be better. The one weakness of the script adds to this problem: its desire to give us what amounts to an epilogue. Ending the musical with the wonderfully directed moment when Jo writes the first words of what became her famous novel would have been a stronger choice and given us a more palatable length.

Still, don't allow that criticism to keep you away from Little Women this weekend. It's a fun show, wonderfully created by the talented folks at City Circle. But if you have little kids, I recommend the matinée performance.

--Matthew Falduto


Matthew has a Bachelor's degree in English from the University of Iowa. He has directed, acted in, and produced theater in the Iowa City area for over ten years. He has worked with the Iowa City Community Theatre, City Circle and Dreamwell, of which he is a founder. Two of his plays have been produced in the Iowa City area. In another brief life, he also worked as a technical writer.

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