Classic reinvigoration

Little Women – The Broadway Musical (Queensland Conservatorium)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

July 13 – 20

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Making a musical out of non-musical source material is perhaps fraught with peril as much as possibility, especially when the work is a classic such as Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century autobiographical civil war novel, “Little Women”. The four March sisters of the story are beloved characters, especially Alcott-proxy Jo, the outspoken, opinionated central character of the eponymous tale.

And it is with protagonist Jo (Nicole Herreen, sharing the role with Rebecca Rolle) that “Little Women – The Broadway Musical” begins. It is the mid-1860s in New York and the aspiring writer has hurricaned herself into a New York boarding house where she laments to ‘acquaintance’ intellectual and fellow boarder Professor Bhaer (Daniel Hamilton) about receipt of another publisher rejection. Segue back to a few years earlier and we are taken to her home in Massachusetts a few days before Christmas and then in transition through key markers of the year.

As she slouches about in trousers it is clear that the whimsical Jo is quite unlike her sisters, reluctantly-romantic Meg (Lauren Smithers), kind-hearted and content Beth (Emma Kavanagh, sharing the role with Bronte Mitchell) and the pouty Amy (Paige McKay), yet Jo vows that the four of them will remain together forever. And it is clear that their mother Marmee (Paige Bryne) loves them equally, doing the best to raise the four from girls into women, alone while her husband is at war serving as a Union Army chaplain. When Marmee is called to Washington to attend to her ailing husband, Jo’s journey from a young girl to womanhood becomes more difficult, especially after boy-next-door and best friend Laurie (Lachlan Griffith) confesses his desire for her.

Herreen gives a superb performance as the headstrong Jo, always animated with an unrelenting energy, yet still fiercely loyal. She is passionate without relent, whether it be in her “Christopher Columbus” cuss of choice or retell of her operatic tragedy stories (in perfect synchronicity with the dialogue enacted in the fantasy sequences occurring alongside her on stage).  And Herreen is vocally impressive from the opening number enactment of the blood-and-guts thrillers of violence and seduction that she is trying to get published.

While all performers do an excellent job, it is from the male characters that some of the most memorable performances come. Hamilton gives a humble modesty to the kind Professor Bhaer, initially attempting to deny his growing affection for Jo. And as Laurie’s poor but virtuous tutor Mr Brooke, Clayton Turner is vocally impressive, especially in ‘More Than I Am’, which sees him asking Meg for her hand in marriage while telling her of his enlistment in the Union Army.

Meanwhile, Griffith not only has a magnificent musical-theatre voice, but delivers a dynamic performance as the charming, good-hearted Laurie, bringing appreciated nuanced comedy to the pivotal role. ‘Five Forever’, in which Laurie is made an honorary member of the March family, is a genuinely jubilant song and dance number in belie of things to come in Act Two’s tonal shift (no spoilers but those who have read or seen the story before know exactly what results in audience tears and sobs all around).

Marmee’s musical lament to her husband about the loneliness of raising their daughters without him, ‘Here Alone’ is beautiful, thanks to Byrne’s dignified delivery. Similarly, her later ‘Days of Plenty’ provides another emotional musical highlight. However, from start to finish, this is Nicole Herreen’s show. As the pivotal character and storyteller, she is rarely off-stage and nor do we want her to be. Her big ‘Astonishing’ rally into interval with remind of her fearless grand plans is vocally strong, while her ‘The Fire Within Me’ is goosebumpingly good.

Unfortunately, in its musical reinvigoration, Allan Knee’s book has streamlined the original “Little Women” story, which means the characters lack depth and even though the themes around female empowerment, friendship and love remain relevant today, this appeal is note really realised through the musical’s essentially bland score. Despite engagingly-performed musical numbers like ‘Take a Chance on Me,’ where Laurie tries to make impression with Jo, the first act drags. Indeed, with only a few exceptions, the songs (18 in total and some reprises) don’t do much to move the narrative along, which makes its 2 hours, 40 minute duration seem even longer. By what giving each character a musical number, the musical detracts from the driving central story of Jo and Laurie and makes youngest sister Amy’s animosity towards Jo appear without much motivation, making her seem precocious.

While the plot’s liberties may trouble those loyal to the original text, there are enough moments of familiarity to satisfy those with a passing knowledge of the novel’s plot.  When the mother and daughters gather around as Marmee reads the girls their father’s letter from war, which makes mention of his little women at home, it is a comforting visual tableaux. Measured costuming and staging tones also add much to the authenticity of the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University Performing Arts production. The Powerhouse’s versatile Visy Theatre stage allows for a wider-than-usual stage set-up and its resulting nooks and crannies enable multiple entrance and exit points and so, also, unobtrusive scene changes. A scrim screen adds another level too, especially as shadow play is used in accompanying fantasy sequence realisation of Jo’s recount of one of her stories.

In its condensed take on the March sisters’ story, “Little Women – the Broadway Musical” may not be quite as heartfelt as it source material, however it is still charming in its own right. While its songs may not stay with you after the show, its sentiment sure will as will the talent of its performers, which is undeniable and especially appreciated during numbers when many of the 15-member ensemble cast join together.

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