REVIEW: Little Women: the Musical (NightBlue Theater)

  
  

NightBlue struggles to mold staid story into musical drama

  
  

marmee_girls

  
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
   
   

marmee_jo

  
  

Continue reading

REVIEW: You Took Away My Flag (Modofac Productions)

Take away these lyrics

 

253_FINAL-YOU_TOOK_AWAY_MY_FLAG-wo_strawdog

 
Modofac Productions, LLC presents
 
You Took Away My Flag: a Musical About Kosovo
 
Book, music and lyrics by Henry H. Perritt Jr.
Directed by
G. J. Cederquist; musical direction by Jeremy Ramey
At
Theatre Building Chicago, Lakeview
Through May 23 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Henry H. Perritt Jr., the Chicago-Kent College of Law professor who authored and produced You Took Away My Flag: a Musical About Kosovo knows a lot about his play’s subject — he authored two books about the disputed Balkan territory and spent 10 years working toward its redevelopment as an independent state — and something about writing music.

What he doesn’t know is the first rule of drama: Show. Don’t tell.

There’s so much exposition in this musical, it could be a textbook. And it doesn’t help a bit that it’s a sung-through format, so all this explication comes at us in recitative form. Even worse, the lyrics often jar against the music with too many feet per beat, poor scansion and bad rhymes, in awful couplets like these:

 

"Your kind heart will keep you from ever
Using that AK47."

"Must we endure the Serbians’ yoke un-
Til our backs are truly broken?"

"Talk all you want. I don’t care.
Successful insurgencies are really rare."

The exposition begins with the opening song, in which the narrator, a trench-coated American reporter (Brian Birch), gives us some history of the conflict in Kosovo between the occupying, Serbs and the "proud Albanians" — the story is unabashedly 253_FINAL-YOU_TOOK_AWAY_MY_FLAG-wo_strawdogpro-Albanian — and sets us up to meet 18-year-old Arian (Jordan Phelps), his best friend, Fahri (Ethan Saks), and Arian’s older sister, Vjosa (Amy Steele). The three all work in a cafe run by the siblings’ father, Fatmir (Joshua Harris).

Arian chafes under Serbian military law, but Vjosa is just as bothered by the strictures of Albanian society, and longs for the freedom of America. She is secretly in love with a Serbian officer, Dragan (Shaun Nathan Baer), an unheard-of miscegeny. The boys enrage some Serbian soldiers by taunting them with the Albanian flag. While Dragan protects Arian, one of his men kills Fahri. Vowing revenge, Arian goes off to join the Kosovo Liberation Army, a band of guerrillas led by Driton (Patrick Cannon).

Meanwhile, Dragan drunkenly asks Vjosa if she still loves him. She does, but she’s not above stealing secret Serbian plans from him to give to her brother. Fatmir and the reporter try unsuccessfully to get the U.N. to intervene in Kosovo. The fighting goes on, the passage of time symbolized by the reporter’s increasingly blood-stained trench coat, and the purloined plans make no difference.

253_FINAL-YOU_TOOK_AWAY_MY_FLAG-wo_strawdog Guilt-stricken Dragan gives the reporter compromising photos of Serbian atrocities that bring international aid at last, and NATO bombs the Serbs out of Kosovo. The proud Albanian Kosovars next struggle with international authorities, ultimately declaring independence but never getting back their Albanian flag.

Parts of the plot seem unlikely, yet not more so than in other musicals. But there’s way too much of it — too many complexities and too many scenes covering too long a time period.

The young cast, all beautiful singers and fine actors, do a heroic job with the material. The music, if not always melodious, is pleasant enough, and sometimes stirring, with a contemporary pop sound. Music director Jeremy Ramey and his musicians (David Orlicz, Nick Anderson and Nick Boettcher) give the score everything they can, but the tunes and the performances have no chance at all against the relentless horribleness of all those words.

 

Rating: ★½

 

 

Continue reading