Life Goes On for “Little Women” at Masquerade

When the musical, “Little Women” opened on Broadway January 23, 2005, many hopes were high that the run would be a long one. Alas, that initial production would last just 137 performances, closing on the following May 22nd. Not long thereafter, while enjoying cocktails one Friday evening at New York’s famed Sardi‘s restaurant, I met Ruben Brache, one of the show’s producers who was already moving on to a new project developing a website that now allows investors around the world to make online investments in new theatricals from Broadway to London and beyond. (See www.eBroadwayPlays.com). But “Little Women,” based of course on the classic Louisa May Alcott novel, would have an afterlife of its own, like so many shows that don’t make their fortune in New York, but rather out-of-town with local company and touring productions. Now, thanks to the evermore popular Masquerade Theatre, it is Houston’s turn to enjoy the show.

With a book by Allan Knee, the music of Jason Howland, and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, this pleasant production is nicely directed (and choreographed) by Phillip K. Duggins, with fine musical direction from Sally Gardner. Alcott’s familiar tale, published in 1868, was based on the author’s own childhood experiences growing up in New England, along with her three sisters, during the American Civil War. Here, the central character of elder sister (and budding author), Jo March, is beautifully played by Beth Lazarou. Her Broadway-worthy voice is immediately evident in the charming song, “Better.” Lazarou brings plenty of joi de vivre to the task of leading fellow cast members, Kristina Sullivan (Meg), Michael J. Ross (John), and Corey Hertzog (Laurie) in the rousing number, “An Operatic Tragedy,” featuring some interesting shadow-play lighting of a dimly lit secondary scene (lighting designer, Russell Freeman). Stephanie Bradow, in the role of Marmee March, the girls mother, quickly displays her rich warmth and soaring vocal power while singing the beautiful, “Here Alone,” that captures Marmee’s longing for a husband away at war. Allison Sumrall gives us a wonderfully aloof performance as the wealthy and unapproachable Aunt March, and brings an operatic quality to her fine duet of “Could You” with Miss Lazarou. Jo and Meg join sister Beth (Libby Evans) and their mother for a cheerful frolic aptly titled “Delighted,” but at the performance I attended, Marmee’s malfunctioning body microphone had more snaps, crackles, and pops than a bowl of Rice Krispies, and would be a troubling issue during the performance.

As the youngest sister, Amy, Catherine Taylor is a convincing little hellion. Then a beaming and handsome Corey Hartzog (Laurie) seemed to glow as he lit up the stage with the joyful “Take A Chance On Me.” As Laurie’s father, the grumpy Mr.Laurence, Jay Tribble joins Miss Evans in the playful, “Off To Massachusetts.” In the meantime, while their father is away at war, the sisters give the audience plenty of laughs with petty sibling squabbles that many of us could identify with. But the girls unite with Laurie for the delicious vocal oath of loyalty, “Five Forever.” Clearly, Mr. Hartzog’s fine voice is maturing well as a Masquerade regular, and I again found myself wondering what backstage magician is training this fine company’s repertory cast as the singing improves with every production.
The simple scenic designs of Mr. Hartzog were generally adequate, with perhaps a staircase here, or a roof outline there to suggest locations, and furniture that moved smoothly on and off stage during scene changes. But less successful was the staging of some scenes, like the sweet love duet of “More Than I Am” from Meg and her beloved John, that was played against a largely bare and soaring floor-to-ceiling backstage wall. In spite of occasional lighting projections, this sometimes visually diminished the players and served as an intrusive reminder that we were sitting in a theatre, while real intimacy could have been easily accomplished with perhaps just a corner scene in a spotlight, or the partial drop of a curtain. Paraphrasing a bit, perhaps President Reagan would have said, “Mr. Duggins, tear down that wall!” Miss Lazarou’s dramatic (and beautifully sung) Act One closer, “Astonishing,” was exactly that. Alas, at the same time, one audience member was apparently composing an annoying, “Sneezer’s Concerto Solo,” while another was disturbing others holding up an active camera phone. Appropriately challenged by ushers at intermission, I am pleased to report that the “photographer” and his party of 5 did not return for Act Two.

In that second act, Jo finally gets employment as a writer, and the ensemble celebrates with her while singing, “The Weekly Volcano Press.” Joining in the fun is John Gremillion (as Professor Bhaer), and he handles the tongue-twisting “How I Am,” with rapid-fire skill. A duet of “Some Things Are Meant to Be,” from Jo and Beth was less successful, and the audience failed to applaud when it was over. Following a family tragedy I will not disclose, Marmee delivers a heart-wrenching call for courage in the face of adversity with her “Days of Plenty.” As this sometimes melancholy second act brings us to the last hour before midnight, there is a sense that we may be having too much of a good thing. Some of the melodies wander pleasantly without ever clearly giving us a tune to hum on the way home. There are several moments when we think the three-hour show is over, but it isn’t. Perhaps that was part of the problem in New York when the producers may have needed a sharper knife for trimming. But with the final “Small Umbrella in the Rain” duet from Jo and the professor, it was time for us all to head home and count our blessings for having a fine repertory company like Masquerade right here in Houston.

Masquerade’s “Little Women” continues in the Zilkha Hall of Houston’s Hobby Center, with 8 p.m. performances this Thursday, July 31st , and on Saturday, August 2nd . For tickets and information, call 713-861-7045, or visit the website at www.MasqueradeTheatre.com.

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About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the Lambs Club, he is also editor of The Lambs' Script. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic@earthlink.net.
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