Little Women – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix

It was a year ago this month when Valley Youth Theatre surprised us all with an ambitious production of the Broadway musical, The Secret Garden. The surprise wasn’t necessarily due to the youthful company’s professional approach, though it’s fair to say that audiences new to VYT are usually astonished when attending one of its larger musical productions for the first time. It was due more to the fact that the unedited, musical play was mounted at its smaller, home-based theatre on North First Street rather than across town at the larger Herberger Theater Center. With its high-standard of production and VYT’s ability to cast the show so well, The Secret Garden was beyond a doubt deserving of the grander and more prestigious setting of the Herberger. For the record, that end-of-season honor this year goes to the perennial favorite, Annie.

In many ways, this year’s VYT April production mirrors its 2017 counterpart. The Broadway musical Little Women, with its high-production values and a talented cast (frankly, something startling for a group of young, local actors all in the same production) is equally deserving of a Herberger Theater Center setting.

Though Louisa May Alcott’s sprawling nineteenth century novel is part of America’s literary fabric, a work that has inspired several films, plays, radio, and television productions, it might surprise many to discover there was ever a Broadway musical. Even though the show toured the country in 2005, the original production received only mixed reviews at best when it opened in New York, and closed after just four months. And for good reasons.

Allan Knee’s book adaptation of Alcott’s sizable, two-part novel never quite captured the overall warmth of the characters and the love they had for each other in the way that other adapted works achieved it. The highlights are there, but that’s what they are; highlights. Watching the show is like seeing a lengthy trailer, clipped scenes from a much larger work. Plus, Knee created a new opening, a scene that takes place much later in the novel, and its introduction feels abrupt.

When the show begins, the story’s central little woman, Jo (Lily Castle) is already an aspiring writer and living in New York, trying unsuccessfully to get her work published. When she asks the kindly Professor Bhaer (Steven Enriquez) for professional advice but doesn’t like what she hears, she turns on him like a petulant child in the playground with alarming aggression. If you’re new to Little Women and know little of Jo’s passionate character, there’s a danger of taking an instant dislike to her manner. The musical needs to open as the book does, at Christmas, three years earlier, when everyone is together, so that we can see the connection of the four sisters, their love for each other, their family alliance, and their differences. Once we come to know Jo, who, as her mother, Marmee (Tatum Dial) states, acts on every whim rather than thinks, then her childish insults to the good professor become easier to understand. As presented in the musical, that angry, verbal assault makes you want to keep the character at bay from the outset.

But once the show circles back three years earlier to that Christmas setting, and all members of the family, with its absent father, are properly introduced and seen interacting with each other, then the story begins to feel as it should.

Dori Brown’s scenic design makes great use of VYT’s stage by creating a set that includes the family living quarters, winding stairs to the attic, the wealthy Aunt March’s residence, and a small room in Mrs. Kirk’s New York Boarding House, all flanked by a yellow painted porch stage right and a barn with an awning overhanging a door stage left. When the action takes place further afield, a scrim drops, hiding the set and creating the feel of being outside, as when Jo first meets Laurie (Vincent Pugliese) or when Jo and her sister, Beth (Sarah Pansing) fly a kite together. A single garden trellis works wonders when suggesting an exterior setting, though the absence of anything suggesting rain during a rainy scene, despite the sparkling glisten on an umbrella, makes the event seem oddly empty.

With some exceptions, most of the score tends to evaporate once concluded. With music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, the songs work pleasantly well within the context of the scene, but there’s little you’ll remember once the show is over; there’ll be no melody bouncing in your head during the drive home. But what does work is the energy behind the performances and the voices that sing them. The duet, Some Things Are Meant To Be, with Jo and Beth is pleasing, Tatum Dial as the mother telling Jo how she copes with the death of one her little women, Days of Plenty, is moving and made all the more effective by Tatum’s depth of emotion, and the upbeat Our Finest Dreams, where all the sisters, the fiery Jo, the likable Beth, the pretentious and sometimes jealous Amy (Kendra Richards) and the oldest sister, Meg (Stephanie Larson) sing of making their next Christmas the best one ever, is the one ensemble number that actually feels as if its musical roots are part of a Broadway show.

But the single showstopper – and it’s clearly designed to be that way – is Jo’s Astonishing, a song faintly reminiscent of Wicked’s Defying Gravity but without Elphaba’s rebel yell, sung in the family attic just before intermission, as the young woman considers her future and ponders how to achieve it.

Lily Castle made a positive impression in last year’s Spotlight Youth Theatre production of Legally Blonde as Paulette, owner of the local hair salon, but nothing in that production could have prepared audiences for the non-stop energy and sheer power behind her portrayal of Jo. Under director Bobb Cooper’s guidance, she not only elevates Little Women to something far beyond a regular youth theatre production, it’s probable that other actors sharing scenes found themselves pushing their own performances in order to compete. In the way that, from night to night, actors respond to the energy of an appreciative audience, there’s no doubt that this excellent cast responded to Lily’s energy during the rehearsal process and elevated each of their own performances.

The source material may be flawed – if you didn’t already know who the characters Aunt March (Emma Sucato) and Mrs. Kirk (Haley Hanni) were from the novel, it may take you awhile wondering why they were in a scene; they’re not introduced, they simply appear – but it’s Bobb Cooper’s VYT production and this truly capable cast that makes Little Women work. And at the center of it all is Lily Castle. She’s the standout.

Pictures Courtesy of Laura Durant of Durant Photography

Little Women Continues at Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix until April 22

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