‘Little Women’ at St. Gabriel Miracle Players by Amanda Gunther

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FOUR AND A HALF STARS
Christopher Columbus! Little Women, the musical, has landed at the St. Gabriel Miracle Players just in time for the holidays! Directed by Kevin James Logan with Musical Direction by Matthew Frieswyk, this feel-good show based on the novel written by Louisa May Alcott, takes audiences right back to the civil war with the four March sisters. A heart-warming tale just in time for the upcoming holiday season; a perfect night at the theatre for all patrons young and young at heart.

The March Family: (l to r) Amy (Andy Kay), Beth (Sherry Benedek), Marmee (Michele Guyton), Jo (Michelle Hill), and Meg (Laura Whittenberg). Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.
The March Family: (l to r) Amy (Andy Kay), Beth (Sherry Benedek), Marmee (Michele Guyton), Jo (Michelle Hill), and Meg (Laura Whittenberg). Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.

The most stunning thing about this production aside from the incredibly talented singing voices are the period costumes. Full hoop skirts aplenty for the March women, each girl having her own distinctive color palette thanks to Costumer Laural Clark. The costumes, particularly the dresses, are breathtaking, not only in their sheer size (five hoop skirted women fills the entire stage quite nicely) but in their intricate detail. Clark adorns nearly all of her dresses with lace in some form or another, be it trim or collars and cuffs, and this is a gentle feminine touch for each of the March women, save for Aunt March who would look simply absurd witch such girly accoutrements. With Jo in passionate shades of red to reflect her inner flame, Amy in childish pink to mirror her youthful innocence, Marmee in maternal shades of blue, Meg in green which suits her complexion and Beth in delicate lavenders to augment her frail existence; Clark has done an exceptional job of making these costumes meaningful.

Musical Director Matthew Frieswyk has done an exceptional job of coaxing full, well-rounded sounds out of the performers, particularly during moments of four and five part harmonies like “Our Finest Dreams,” “I’d Be Delighted,” and “Five Forever.” Frieswyk finds the balance between vocal integrity and emotional output and ensures that the cast delivers both so that songs are felt and not just heard. The problem there-in lies with the resplendent live orchestra, conducted by Tania Bindhoff-Frieswyk, A full dozen musicians take up instruments in the pit for a gloriously professional-quality sound, but due to the open-air placement of the orchestra they often drown out the soloists, despite the performers using microphones. Swells of orchestrations often sweep away even the more powerful singers, like Jo and Marmee, losing some of the beauty of their songs in the process. Despite these musical disproportionate moments, the show as a whole has a brilliant sound to it.

Director Kevin James Logan does an exceptional job with coaxing fully established characters out of his cast. This is often difficult to do as the focal point of a musical can easily be the music, but these ‘little women’ are well-developed individuals. Logan’s one downfall to this production is the shift in scenes. Some are shorter than others, but nearly all of them are particularly noisy and clunky. There are even a few where the sounds of furniture being moved, and occasionally dropped, overpowers the dialogue or singing occurring in front of the curtain. But otherwise the pacing of the production moves fluidly and the story feels natural.

While the musical is not dance-heavy, Choreographer Kristin Rigsby finds little moments to infuse sprightly dance routines that helps keep the tempo of the show upbeat. Mostly during “I’d Be Delighted” and “Five Forever” are where Rigsby slips in her little marching and fun-loving routines; simplistic yet entertaining to watch, elevating the spirits of those involved in those numbers.

There are characters aplenty in this production, and the bitter haughty Aunt March (Tracy Davidson) is no exception. The perfect foil to the sweet and motherly Marmee (Michele Guyton) Davidson has a melodramatic flare, particularly when bellowing for Josephine and the other sisters. Her presence bristles with an air of arrogant sophistication and she belts out her sharp severe personality in “Could You?”

Guyton, as the wise matriarch of the March family, has a level temperament and speaks kindly but firmly when the situation calls for it. Guyton showcases quite the emotional range for “Here Alone” with a delicate blend of tragic sorrow and hopeful optimism of soldiering on in this solo. The emotional struggle that surfaces during her solo “Days of Plenty” is a brilliant construct of perseverance in the face of grief; a heart-warming rendition of this character, Guyton does the mother a great deal of justice in her portrayal.

The proverbial fifth March ‘sister’ comes to the attic in the form of the sprightly youth Laurie (Paul Kennedy). His charming charisma, albeit awkward, makes him agreeable and adorable when he starts his solo “Take A Chance On Me,” pleading his heart to Jo. His vibrant belt during the brief coda-style reprise shows off his impressive vocal prowess. Kennedy kindles a romantic chemistry with Amy (Andy Kay) during their goody and lighthearted duet “The Most Amazing Thing.” Kay, as the impetuous and bratty youth, grows a great deal during the production. Starting off as moody and rather savage, she grows into a refined and poised young lady.

Meg (Laura Whittenberg) has a songbird voice, which is easily recognized in the larger numbers like “Five Forever” and “Our Finest Dreams.” Whittenberg’s duet “More Than I Am,” is almost ethereal in beauty and stunning to hear, although her vocal partner DJ Wojciehowski, playing the dashing Mr. Brook, is very soft and almost lost completely in this number. Whittenberg and Wojciehowski share a witty chemistry near the end of the production, making their presence at the wedding rather amusing.

Beth March (Sherry Benedek) is the epitome of serenity and kindness. Always seeing the good in her sisters, even when they are rotten to one another, Benedek adapts the character to be a genuine good woman. Despite being frail with illness, she remains positive and supportive and her voice is divine. Her voice is soft but full in “Off to Massachusetts,” a duet shared with the curmudgeonly old Mr. Laurence (John D’Amato) and even he cannot be unaffected by her sweet nature. It’s the duet that Benedek shares with Jo that is truly moving, “Some Things Are Meant To Be.” Filled with bittersweet reminiscence, this song is a perfect showcase of Benedek’s true vocal talent.

The leader of the March clan, despite only being the eldest daughter, is Jo (Michelle Hill.) With a passionate flame burning inside of her, and all the creativity that can fit in one attic, Hill is astounding in her rendition of this timeless literary classic character. The eternal flame churning within her really flares up and bursts out of her vocally for “Astonishing,” the finale of Act I, and is often reprised throughout the show in moments of extremely emotional eruption. Her vocal purity is sublime and she carries the emotions of her character thoroughly into her songs without compromising the quality of them. A versatile performance is given throughout the production as Hill’s character grows and faces new challenges, the biggest of all being love that she secretly harbors with the incredibly talented Professor Bhaer (Paul Ballard).

Ballard, as the older learned man, carries off an impressive German accent and is every bit emotionally present in his solo numbers as Hill is in hers. “How I Am” is an emotional jet-stream pouring out of him in a rapid succession of amusing verses and heartfelt choruses. The bristly attraction that draws the pair together like magnets is well displayed in “Small Umbrella in the Rain,” a duet that cements the deep feelings and intentions of their relationship. Hill and Ballard are brilliant together.

Professor Bhaer (Paul Ballard) and Jo March (Michelle Hill). Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.
Professor Bhaer (Paul Ballard) and Jo March (Michelle Hill). Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

St. Gabriel Miracle Players’ Little Women: The Musical is a timeless classic that makes everyone feel good for the holiday season. Don’t miss your chance to share the joy!

Running Time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission.

Little Women: The Musical plays through November 17, 2013 at the St. Gabriel’s Miracle Players at the John Paul Regional Catholic School— 6946 Dogwood Road, in Windsor Mills, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 747-5626 or purchase them online.