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Theater review: 'Little Women' at Blackfriars

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On opening night of "Little Women" at Blackfriars Theatre, artistic director Danny Hoskins and development manager Mary Tiballi Hoffman took the stage to greet the audience. They asked if anyone was visiting Blackfriars for the first time, and nearly half the audience raised hands. An older man in the front row leaned to his younger neighbor and said, "This your first time here? Oh, you'll love it."

"Little Women," a musical adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel, opened on Broadway in 2005 and closed after 137 performances. Though it was nominated for awards, there were no wins. However, Alcott's beloved tale of four sisters in post-Civil War New England has continued to take on a life of its own across the nation as high schools, colleges, and local theaters stage the musical.

But consider this stage adaptation a highlight reel of Alcott's original story. With 21 musical numbers, there's not adequate time to develop the characters encountered in the 300-plus page novel or even the two-hour film versions (most notably, the 1994 offering with Winona Ryder as Jo March). However, the three-hour musical does give time for splendid performances from the cast. Even if audiences won't leave attached to Jo or Professor Bhaer, they might leave attached to the talented humans portraying the roles.

Enter a magnificent Blackfriars cast, directed by Patricia Lewis Browne. In addition to her work as an actress and professor, Browne consistently directs some of Blackfriars' strongest work, including "Annapurna" and "The Boys Next Door." Music director Julie Covach and choreographer Mandi Lynn Griffith-Gurell join Browne to form a powerhouse female creative team that would have made Alcott proud.

The casting decisions for this show are so precise that it seems the creative team is well-acquainted with the show. Leading the pack as tomboy dreamer-writer Jo March is an astonishing Cassidy Thompson. The recent Eastman School of Music graduate is a humorous force onstage, with an incomparable voice (so powerful, in fact, that her mic seems to have trouble keeping up with her vocals throughout the night).

Current Eastman vocal student Natalia Hulse, who plays Beth, toned down her obvious talent as the quietest of the sisters, but she and Thompson had nearly the entire audience sobbing with "Some Things Are Meant To Be." As the older sister, Meg, Rebecca Pfohl is a sweet presence onstage, with soaring soprano vocals; opposite Kyle Critelli as John Brooke, the two make a charming pair of young lovers. As spoiled youngest sister Amy, Gemma Vodacek is wildly delightful; her keen timing and strong voice make it hard to believe she's only a senior in high school (watch that one; she's going places).

Ruth Bellavia portrays Marmee, the mother of the four March sisters, and she's at once strong and vulnerable, her musical numbers ("Days of Plenty," "Here Alone") an anchor to the show's oft-syrupy content (and oh, that voice). As Mr. Laurence, Steven Marsocci has perhaps the smallest role but he makes the most of it — his scenes with Hulse, in particular, brought some of the show's biggest laughs. Vicki Casarett, as the grand, aged Aunt March is really something to behold. Casarett has a gravelly speaking voice that melts into a rather rich singing voice, and her spunky interpretation of the character is spot-on. Portraying the boy next door, Laurie, CJ Garbin (another high school senior to watch over the next few years) is ever earnest, and his performance of "Take a Chance on Me" flawlessly embodies the angst and hope of young love. Rounding out the show is Carl Del Buono as an amiable Professor Bhaer. Everything about Del Buono bespeaks a sense of humor, and he is able to relay that to the audience wonderfully in this role, getting more than a few laughs opposite Thompson.

The set design by Roger Budnik is quaint, with lots of wooden accents and neutral colors that allow the brighter, eye-catching costumes by Diane Spacher and elaborate wig design by Laura Fox to stand out. There's a round picture frame on the center back wall that features digital projections to accompany the vignette-like scenes (though the seasons are woefully mismatched several times). Clever built-in compartments for hiding props and furniture help scene changes to flow.

It's been quite a month for the local theater circuit — right now, almost every company has a production running. And while classics like "A Christmas Story" will draw traditionalists, several theaters are getting creative with their interpretation of a holiday show. Maybe the show can have a scene that involves Christmas, and a warm sense of family and home? Or maybe it can simply draw a crowd on name alone? "Little Women" falls into the latter categories, but somehow it works.

When "Little Women" ended, the older man leaned once again to his neighbor, asking: "Did you like it?" "It was great," the younger patron said. "We'll be back."

So yes, there's a place for new plays and avant garde musicals. But contemporary, crowd-pleasing musicals have a place, too. If a "popular" choice in a season locks in a new generation of theatregoers, bring 'em on.

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