By Lydia Melby, Arts Editor
Everyone loves tales of accomplishment, of overcoming the greatest or even the most mundane of adversities, of romance and happy endings, and of course, tales that involve a loving, supportive family. So if a story already has all these elements, what could possibly be done to make it better? Why, set it to music, of course.
The Department of Theatre is bringing the musical version of one of the best-loved stories in American culture to the stage. Little Women, which opened Thursday with following shows Friday and Saturday, will run Feb. 20-21 and 27-28 at 7:30 p.m. each night, and it is a fun adaptation of the classic story about staying true to yourself, with all the sweeping drama and powerhouse songs of a Broadway musical.
This version of Little Women, however, is probably not the version you know. Gone is the March girls’ goodness to their less-than-fortunate neighbors and courage in the face of poverty; gone is the struggle between doing what is good for yourself or good for all; and gone is the carefree, yet poignant portrayal of childhood that so many have come to cherish. Instead, this musical begins with an agenda and rushes like a train to the ending. This is an understandable adjustment made for the sake of time, since not many people I know would sit in a theatre for the time it would take to do justice to the whole story. However, one cannot help but wonder as the curtain falls if something was not left out or forgotten.
That said, ACU has once again pulled off a remarkable job of taking a less-than-perfect show and making it something worth watching. Armed with a minimalistic, yet beautiful set – something I am beginning to realize is a staple for ACU theatre – the actors take the stage and dance, sing and emote their way through the show.
Charlene Koepf, who plays Jo March, is solid and believable in her role, and her brash, confident vocals are ideal for the part. Although Koepf fails to convey her character’s growing sense of maturity with her small amount of lines, she compensates beautifully with a solid, unassuming voice, and her last few songs make the whole first half of the play worth the wait.
Rebecca Wheeler, who plays Meg March, is good as the older and more reserved sister and has one of those voices that catches you by the wrist and yanks you, quite willingly, along with her. From her first appearance as the damsel-in-distress in Jo’s exotic fantasy world to the last number, you find yourself hoping in each scene that she will have at least a small solo.
Cara Leahy is delightful as the loyal and shy Beth March, and showcases not only solid acting but also a pure, lovely singing voice, which is gracefully showcased in her last number, Some Things Are Meant To Be.
And of course, Jenavene Hester is perfect for the part of Amy March, accomplishing the difficult feat of making her character as obnoxious as we all remember Amy to be but also as lovable as the youngest sister should become.
Jerry Mendl is charming as Theodore Laurence, and his boyish goofy abandon provides a great counterpoint for the estrogen overload the hyper female cast sometimes brings. Peter Hargrave is great as Mr. Brook, and Jeremy Varner, as Professor Bhaer, also provides some needed calm and solid vocals, even if his accent seems to fluctuate from line to line.
The real stand-outs of the show, however, were not the main characters. Brittany Murphy’s turn as Aunt March is quite enjoyable and saves the show from becoming too melodramatic at times. Carlee Cagle gives an astounding performance as Marmee, which can be a hard role to play. However, her unobtrusive presence was both impressive and a relief, and her performance of Days of Plenty certainly wins my “Best Song” award.
And finally, Eric Hampton steals the spotlight and the audience’s attention in his faultless character performance of the crotchety old Mr. Laurence; each appearance he makes lends so much energy to the rest of the performance. His light-hearted duet with Beth was easily the best moment of the show, and also one of the most genuine.
All in all, this is a solid show. It is not the best I have seen at ACU, but it is still a quality performance. Even though one or two of the actors seem terribly miscast, they all take the material they were given and run with it. And while this results in a few extreme lows, the extreme highs more than make up for it. Overall, the performance is solid enough to carry the audience to the final curtain call. The set and costumes are appealing, and although many die-hard fans of Little Women, may find this version of the story a tad lackluster, this particular production is enjoyable and worth the price of admission.