LCP’s ‘Little Women’ gives musical big sound, look

By Marilyn Jozwik

Published October 9, 2017

Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel “Little Women” is set during the Civil War. While the play maintains much of Alcott’s own wording, placing it squarely in that bygone era, the musical – Lake Country Playhouse’s current offering -- has a more modern tone with book by Allan Knee. Alcott’s formal language of the time has been updated and the music and lyrics help distill the story’s main points in a more contemporary and entertaining manner.

If it weren’t for the costumes and references to the girls’ dad being away in the Civil War, the musical practically could be set today. It has an outstanding cast, with pitch perfect characterizations and some unusually strong individual vocals from every cast member. And the music is quite lovely, thanks to Jason Howland’s tunes and Mindi Dickstein’s lyrics well delivered by music director Jim Van Deusen and his handful of musicians, who performed on stage. Nate C. Adams is the show’s director.

In the musical version, Jo, the second oldest of the four March sisters, is even more central than she is in the predecessor play.  Unlike the play, the musical has neatly bookended Jo and Professor Bhaer scenes, opening the show after Jo has grown up and moved to New York, and ending a short time after that with the professor visiting the March home in time for family nuptials. After the opening, the musical goes to flashback, when the girls are on the cusp of womanhood.

The feminist tone comes through loud and clear from the very beginning, when Jo receives a rejection letter from a publisher on her latest literary effort in the opening scene. “My advice is to return home and have babies,” the publisher advises. This does not sit well with Jo, who wants nothing to do with a woman’s traditional role in society, but instead wants to be an author. Her specialty? “Blood and guts stuff,” she proudly admits.

From there, the musical goes back to the family that shaped and nurtured Jo as she was growing up in a time when women’s thoughts were considered trivial and their abilities limited outside the home.

Jo is the Annie in “Annie Get Your Gun,” the Elphaba in “Wicked.” She has strong opinions and she will not be silenced. As a matter of fact, her “Astonishing” has a sort of “Defying Gravity” vibe to it as Jo sings, “There's no turning back, my great adventure has begun. I may be small, but I've got giant plans, to shine as brightly as the sun.”

Lake Country Playhouse has found a gem for Jo in Kat Geertsen, who embodies all the pluck and confidence in the heroine. But Jo first and foremost loves her family, even though she is different from them all. Meg (Hannah Esch), the oldest sister, is a traditional young woman – she is self-conscious but sees herself fitting into the conventions of the time, marriage, family, dutiful wife. Beth (Courtney Denzer) is the peacemaker, quiet and sweet, never having a cross word for anyone. The youngest, Amy (Ella Rose Kleefisch as the Young Amy and Calynn Klohn as an older version), is artistic, but jealous and self-centered.

The quartet of “little women” are bonded by their mother (Paula Garcia) – called Marmee by her daughters. They all adore her and you can see her strength in all of them. While she is not the frequent dispenser of gentle advice that she is the play and book, she does pick moments to guide her charges. When Jo and Amy have a terrible argument she tells them, “I cannot demand that you love one another, but I do demand you treat each other with respect.”

In Act I, Marmee expresses her fears about raising the family and running the household while her husband is at war in “Here Alone,” which Garcia handles with sincerity. Later, in “Days of Plenty,” Marmee releases her grief over a family tragedy. Garcia wrings out plenty of emotion but gets a bit strident on the crescendos.

No movement or gesture is lost in the intimate Lake Country Playhouse, and Geertsen uses a whole tool box of expressions to great effect. Her look of delight as she boxes with her friend, Laurie – the grandson of a grouchy neighbor, Mr. Laurence – demonstrates beautifully how fond she is of the young man, but in a brotherly sort of way. Before another of Jo’s plays that the girls will perform, Meg asks Jo, “Do I die in this one?” Geertsen’s Jo pauses slightly and with relish turns to the audience and responds, “Yes!” I loved the line she spoke when she trudges out in her patched dress before the ball (“I’m not meant for gowns”), sounding like a 10-year-old describing her dislike of broccoli.

I really enjoyed Denzer’s kind and wise Beth. You see a gentleness and fondness in the way she smiles at her siblings and mother when they speak. And her voice is sweet and angelic, drifting effortlessly like a cloud, so perfect for her thoughtful, serene character. Her duet with Mr. Laurence (Rob Carroll), “Off to Massachusetts,” is wonderfully done, as is the touching “Some Things Are Meant to Be” she sings with Jo, which includes some nice work in the staging of kite-flying.

Courtney Denzer as "Beth March" and Kat Geertsen as "Jo March" in 'LITTLE WOMEN' at Lake Country Playhouse. Photo credit: James Baker

Courtney Denzer as "Beth March" and Kat Geertsen as "Jo March" in 'LITTLE WOMEN' at Lake Country Playhouse. Photo credit: James Baker

Esch’s Meg, too, has outstanding vocals and a steady demeanor for her character, while Kleefisch is quite the spitfire, letting her character’s jealous nature get the best of her.

But while this is mostly about women, the men have their place, and LCP has a wonderful bunch. Bryan Noll has created another memorable character in Laurie, who pines for the tomboyish Jo only to be repeatedly rebuffed. As always, Noll brings so much life to the stage, in songs like “Take a Chance on Me,” which he sings to Jo. Noll has softened some of the hard edges of his singing voice for this role, yet maintains the verve.

A highlight of the show is the “Five Forever” piece, featuring Jo, Beth, Meg, Amy and Laurie with some snappy, well-executed choreography, soaring and harmonious vocals and a sense of fun throughout.

L to R: Kat Geertsen, Ella Rose Kleefisch, Courtney Denzer, and Hannah Esch in 'LITTLE WOMEN' at Lake Country Playhouse. Photo credit: James Baker

L to R: Kat Geertsen, Ella Rose Kleefisch, Courtney Denzer, and Hannah Esch in 'LITTLE WOMEN' at Lake Country Playhouse. Photo credit: James Baker

As John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor, Billy Krager has a tall, stately bearing and adds yet another strong vocalist. As Braxton in Jo’s plays he blends the right amount of dash and playfulness.

Nathan Marinan as Professor Bhaer follows his stellar performance in LCP’s “Parade” with another fine turn, while Carroll’s Mr. Laurence is also well-done.  

As Aunt March, Anne Elise Richie is suitably haughty. Her exchange with Jo early on contrasts the pair’s divergent views on the role of women and they handle it beautifully.  When Jo tells her she will never marry, Aunt March replies, “All girls marry,” to which Jo answers, “I’m not all girls.” In the song “Could You?” Richie’s Aunt March sings with lovely tone but conviction about how Jo could travel around the world with her if she would change to be “well- mannered, a model of grace. Learn the art of smiling!”

Even smaller roles are not throwaways with good performances by Jana Rinelli as the boarding house owner, Mrs. Kirk, and Ashley Patin as Clarissa in Jo’s plays, which are really charming bits.

A shout out to the stage hands and cast, who literally had their hands full transporting a couch and other pieces of furniture swiftly and quietly between scenes.

This is yet another stellar show staged by LCP, which seems to find just the right shows for the venue and outstanding local talent.

If you go:

Who: Lake Country Playhouse

What: “Little Women: The Broadway Musical”

When: Through Oct. 22

Where: 221 E. Capitol Drive, Hartland