I am always amazed by the level of commitment and goodwill in the local theatre community. These are everyday people like you and I, who donate of their time to be part of a creative endeavour they love. Some will go onto professional theatre careers and others will not, but the breadth of talent in the suburbs can't be denied.
This brings me to a review of North Shore Theatre Company NSTC(formerly Chatswood Musical Society) and its debut musical production under its new name - Little Women The Broadway Musical.
Opening Act 1 and Act 2 with a clever narrative device of a story within a story, the production plays with Louisa May Alcott's classic literary tale but is never unfaithful to the story. My lifelong memories of Little Women are forever tied to the 1949 film of the book starring June Allyson as Jo March, so this will always be my point of reference for any other adaptations that come and go. Although a golden years of Hollywood schmalz-fest, it is still the one to beat in my books and I was pleasantly surprised by the modern musical adaptation with book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howard and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein.
Let's talk about casting for a moment as it's one of my favourite loves and bones of contention. Apart from script characterisation, casting is the key to defining the adaptation of a work of film or theatre, and NSTC's Debut Director, Jon Emmett, has done an interesting job of it. I say interesting because he has stayed true to the essence of Alcott's characters, refusing to copy the Hollywood castings that have come before. The case in point involves the casting of Laurie and Professor Bhaer, Jo's two love interests. Casting of these two male roles in the 1949 movie had always made me feel that Jo got it wrong - why did she choose the dowdy professor over the refined (and more handsome) Laurie?
It's for the best - Laurie marries Amy (image credit Alan Roy)
With this pre-conception in mind, I was at first puzzled by Isaac Downey's portrayal of Laurie in the NSTC production, as super awkward and a little effeminate. A good performance from Downey but his Laurie is surely no match for Jo, I thought. And with the contrast of Scott Dias as Professor Bhaer, exuding quiet masculinity and passion (and handsome to boot!) the penny dropped. This casting director has got it right and the 1949 Hollywood Director probably got it wrong. Downey is the perfect Laurie, an amazing match for the ditzy Amy March and Dias is the right Professor, the man in whom Jo meets her match.
But this production is really about Alcott's Little Women, isn't it? Don't worry, I'm getting to this. I couldn't have been more impressed with the quintet chosen to play the March women and the strong supporting performance from the larger than life Aunt March (played by Kristin Kok). Reading their acting histories in the programme, I was amazed to see that such young performers (one who is studying business and primary teacher and another here on a work holiday visa!) commanded the stage so beautifully, and carried the musical numbers with emotion and depth.
The March sisters are a theatrical bunch - image credit Alan Roy
Kathy Xenos should maybe consider a career in musical theatre rather than teaching, as she was 'astonishing' as Jo, the strong-minded and loyal heroine who dominates the tale. Young American traveller Ally Foy, was perfect as the soft-hearted, yet stoic Beth, and Georgia Burley demonstrated her acting chops as the beautiful and kind Meg. Hannah Paul was well-cast as the giddy and vain Amy, the March sister we all love to hate, and Jessica Kelly added a quiet dignity and pathos as Marmee, the mother doing it tough raising four daughters, with her husband away at war. All of these performers had powerful voices (particularly Xenos) and though there weren't any truly memorable songs from the score, all carried the story well and were delivered with the perfect level of intensity and emotion by the cast.
The ensemble gels beautifully - image credit Alan Roy
I haven't retold the story of Little Women here as I have assumed (possibly in error) that most will be generally familiar with the tale. It is a great choice of musical for the re-branded North Shore Theatre Company to open with, as it is a well-known and beloved story. I'd recommend it to any lovers of Alcott's tale, whether you love the movie or the book more. Keep an open mind as you will soon be won over by the professionalism of the production, the faithful re-telling (with some clever theatrical deviations) and the passion and heart of the performers. Don't miss this week-long season showing at the beautiful Independent Theatre in North Sydney.