REVIEW: Little Women: the Musical (NightBlue Theater)

  
  

NightBlue struggles to mold staid story into musical drama

  
  

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NightBlue Performing Arts Company presents
  
Little Women: the Musical
  
Created by Allan Knee (book),
Jason Howland (music) & Mindi Dickstein (lyrics)
Directed by
Paul Packer
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

I will admit that I am no fan of the gamut of early to mid-19th century Western literature. I know it’s a sweeping generalization. But there’s something about the pre-Victorian and Victorian novelists that I just find grating. The novel was a novel concept at the time, sweeping the civilized world. Love stories mixed with polite social satire reigned supreme. But to me, it all seems like the imaginings of an overemotional teenager. There’s a reason why Jane Austen‘s “Emma” works so well in its “Clueless” incarnation.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women would easily serve as a parody of this type of literature if it didn’t take itself so seriously. It’s got all the conventions: A young woman with a big dream, strange love affairs, an expansive world that magically seems to be populated with only the work’s characters. Is it really believable that two people in Concord are going to meet up in Italy? Mind you this is without the luxury of cell phones and GPS tracking devices.

In any case, these are flaws with the story, which NightBlue Theater has no control over. Nor does the company have much say in the rather uninspiring songs in the novel’s staged musical version. Still, the decision to produce a play that’s as interesting as sandpaper does fall on NightBlue’s head.

Little Women really is a drama without much drama. Young girls grow into women, people fall in love and someone dies of scarlet fever. And the fact that it takes nearly two-and-a-half hours for NightBlue to tell this story only adds to the complete lack of dramatic tension.

The story of Little Women concerns the March sisters. The protagonist is Jo (Erin O’Shea), a precocious and peppy young woman with big New York dreams. She pens stories of swashbucklers and bloodshed in the hopes of attracting the attention of the popular magazines. Jo has three sisters: Beth (Julia Macholl), Meg (Karyn Dawidowicz) and Amy. The most notable of Jo’s sisters is Amy, played by Linda Rudy, who serves as Jo’s adversary. Jealous of Jo’s beauty and blossoming womanhood, Amy attempts to thwart Jo at every turn, particularly when she tosses one of Jo’s literary works into the fire.

The neighbor boy, Laurie (Shaun Nathan Baer), befriends the girls and quickly falls in love with Jo. When he collects the courage to propose, Jo rejects him. Although it breaks his heart, he eventually finds love elsewhere.

NightBlue is billing the production as a Christmas play. And although the holiday does serve as an occasional backdrop, it’s a bit of a stretch to say Little Women is up there with Miracle on 34th Street (which is coincidentally also up at Stage 773). I also think that their target audience of little girls (they were raffling off a chance to win an American Girl doll the night I went) is a bit of a misfire. Even with musical interludes to break up the monotony of the story, the play drags too long for a child’s attention span. Director Paul E. Packer could omit some scenes and no one would object.

All this said, accolades must be paid to two of the play’s standout performers. O’Shea is put through an endurance test, singing in nearly half of the play’s pieces. She displays her talent as both a superb vocalist and a convincing actress.

Rudy is exceptionally irritating as Amy, which I intend as a compliment given that Amy is supposed to be exceptionally irritating. Rudy adds genuineness to Amy’s huffy, pouty demeanor without crossing over into caricature. You know the antagonist does a good job when you find yourself wanting to reprimand her from your seat.

If you’re a huge Louisa May Alcott fan, you may enjoy this musical version of Little Women. Otherwise, the slow pacing and tame story may just lull you into hibernation.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: The Rocky Horror Show (NightBlue)

 

Lewd, crude ‘Rocky Horror’ an interactive event

 

FrankFloorShow

        
NightBlue Theater presents
    
The Rocky Horror Show
    
Written by Richard O’Brien
Directed by Chris Weise
Musical direction by
Jason Krumweide
at Stage 773*, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
Through Oct. 31  | 
Tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

I am old. How old am I? I am so old that the first time I saw “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” film, nobody threw toast. Or came in costume. Or talked back to the screen. Or did anything but sit there agape.

The next several occasions I viewed the film went just about the same. The rock opera about young Brad Majors and his fiancé Janet Weiss and their remarkable night with the degenerates "Over at the Frankenstein Place" was as yet unsullied by any of audience-participation shtick that accompanies any showing of the film today. And while the film phenomenon was in full swing by the time when, some years later, I first saw a production of the stage musical that had preceded the 1975 cult movie classic, no one in the audience did anything more than wear costumes and dance in the aisles during the closing reprise of "Time Warp."

I confess I enjoyed both film and play better that way. I don’t mind the toast tossing or the newspaper head covering, but I wish that theaters of both types would offer at least a few showings where they tell the peanut gallery to shut up so the rest of us can hear the show.

On the night I saw NightBlue Theater’s current production of The Rocky Horror Show, several audience members kept up such a running litany of interjections that it became difficult to follow the actors. That’s a pity, because many of them are strong performers, both as actors and singers. It’s difficult to do Rocky Horror without hamming it up too much, but Director Chris Weise and cast do an admirable job of keeping things in bounds.

On the other hand, Rocky Horror has two only slightly overlapping sets of fans — I’ll call them the nerds and the vulgarians. The nerds, among whom I count myself, can explain all the references in the opening "Science Fiction Double Feature" (a terrific song, but Usherettes Irene Patino and Carolyn Ewald could barely be heard over the audience in NightBlue’s production) and further can run through all of the science-fiction tropes creator Richard O’Brien so cleverly parodied throughout the musical. The vulgarians are mainly just titillated by the smut and funny underwear and enjoy being part of the show.

NightBlue, which sells $5 participation kits containing toast, confetti, newspapers and all the other accouterments, aims its production firmly toward the second group. Pre-show host Mark Stickney welcomes Rocky Horror "virgins" The%20Rocky%20Horror%20Show563_MainPicturefrom the audience on stage before the outset and engages them in a highly lewd contest as well as encouraging everyone to shout out during the show.

The production combines elements of both the stage musical and the film. The minimalist set and David E. Walters and Laura Zettergren‘s costumes put an emphasis on the prurient. Musical Director Jason Krumweide leads a fine four-piece band, playing keyboards himself with Ken Kazin on drums, Larry Sidlow on guitar and Donn De Santo on bass, although the volume sometimes overwhelms the singers — some of the women, especially, seem to be acoustically challenged, and several actors were using hand mikes, including, most oddly, Paul E. Packer as Rocky Horror, Frank N. Furter’s homemade muscle man. Packer has the right physique for but he lacks the part’s youthful innocence and sings at too deep a pitch.

Stickney goes on to play Eddie — with a great version of "Hot Patootie," including a great dance sequence with Katherine Cunningham, as Columbia — and Dr. Scott. Jennifer Reeves Wilson‘s choreography in other dance numbers, such as "Don’t Dream It Be It," sometimes seems messy.

Smooth-voiced Corey Mills plays an especially wimpy Brad Majors, which works very well against Erin O’Shea’s robust Janet Weiss. Eric Hawrysz makes a stiffer than usual Narrator. Megan Schemmel is a picture-perfect Magenta.

As mad scientist Frank N. Furter, Michael Bounincontro channels Tim Curry for all he’s worth, bringing little originality to the role, but doing a fine mimicry with a powerful voice. Kevin Buswell‘s Riff Raff has more novelty, if only because he starts out emulating Lurch.

If you’re looking for vulgarly raucous Halloween good times, NightBlue provides them, especially if you enjoy performing more than you like listening.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

*except Oct. 31, which will be at The Elbo Room