by Gina Vitolo-Stevens

LITTLE WOMEN: THE BROADWAY MUSICAL continues at Bristol Riverside Theatre through May 22.

Susan D. Atkinson, founding director of Bristol Riverside Theatre, provides a return to musical theater in its purest form with the closing productions of the 2010-2011 season, LITTLE WOMEN, THE BROADWAY MUSICAL.  Director Atkinson shines the proverbial spotlight on the talent, and leaves overly-done lighting and sound technologies to those with lesser casting capabilities.

LITTLE WOMEN, THE BROADWAY MUSICAL, with book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, captures the feel-good, lavish costume drama, while placing the emphasis of import on the actors portraying the characters of this semi-autobiographical story, starting with the central character of Jo March, second-eldest of the four March sisters, portrayed by Jennie Eisenhower. Eisenhower exercises her considerable talent with the unabashed vocal prowess expected of a Barrymore recipient, (both as Best Actress in a Musical for Forbidden Broadway, and Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for The Wild Party.) She confidently attacks the role of tomboy writer Jo and maintains a consistent level of zeal from her first entrance in a New York boarding house to the final scene where a more mature (and published) Jo, back in Concord, Massachusetts, finds love in the arms of attractive German Professor Bhaer, played by Michael Sharon. Sharon conveys the shy, awkwardness inherent of a European bachelor working in the heart of developing mid-19th century New York City. Though Sharon slips in and out of his German accent, he complements the sure-footed Josephine physically and touts a pleasant vocal ability (that we would have liked to hear more of, if not for the limits of the script.) Bhaer coyly professes his hidden desire of love for her, and receives the appropriate “ohs and ahs” from the audience when he finally steps up to the plate and boldly kisses the girl. The prelude to the kiss is the song of longing, “Small Umbrella In The Rain,” and the feelings the two paramours share are palpable.

Leslie Becker as Marmee March is no newcomer to the stage. Having played Broadway and the National Tours of Wicked, Nine (with Antonio Banderas,) Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and Showboat, Becker brings her considerable acting chops to the role. Becker nailed her portrayal of the woman who wears the pants in the household while her husband tends to wounded soldiers away from home. Becker blends strength and fortitude with sensitivity and caring, and all of the women in this production must do so with grace, while moving about in corsets and hoop skirts, no less.

Eldest March daughter, Meg, is perfectly played by Elisa Matthews.  She sounded, looked and moved like an angel. Even when she doubled in the role of Clarissa, she gave melodrama camp a good name.

Youngest sister, Amy March, portrayed by Kara Dombrowski, blends the spoiled child stomping of a Nelly Olsen from “Little House on the Prairie” with the Act to Act transformation and revelation of a young lady who has acquired experience, education and age through foreign travel, under the tutelage of disciplined, judgmental Aunt March, played with control by Cathy Newman. Dombrowski, in her first appearance at BRT, is a darling, and makes the most of asserting her appeal as the banana-curled, pretty youngest March sister.

One actor who forces the audience to reach for the tissues is Beth March, played by Kim Carson. The Barrymore Award winner for her role in Hedwig and the Angry Itch, captures the essence of the vivacious, optimist turned sickly and weak “favorite” of the March brood. Particularly memorable is the wistful, ill Beth who is taken in her wheelchair to Cape Cod for some ocean air and sun with sister Jo by her side as they together fly a kite (figurative or real). The improvisation of the kite and kite string is particularly inspiring, especially as Beth at the peak of the duet “Some Things Are Meant to Be”, releases the kite, and the two sisters watch it fly away. Patrons can not miss the hidden meaning in that gesture and kudos to the director for creating such an emotional moment. Bask in the sea foam green light that bathes the scene. Lighting Designer Deborah Constantine added nuances that made for a richer production including architectural projections onto the backdrop and cross fades during set rotations. No one was ever left in the dark. Bravo.

Loved Mr. Laurence, played by James Van Trueren, who easily transitions from roles such as the Barrymore-nominated Juan Peron in Evita at BRT to Don Quixote/Cervantes in Man of La Mancha a the Skyline Theatre. Van Trueren exhibits equal parts stoicism (when meeting the neighboring Marches) and budding joy (when joining optimistic Beth March at the piano for a lovely duet of “Off to Massachusetts”) in his portrayal.

Stephen Schellhardt as Laurie Laurence, is debuting at BRT has been seen in the National Tour of Altar Boyz, with many Regional credits to his name. Schellhardt brings a playful quality to Laurie, even years later when he discovers that his puppy love for Jo March was just that, and with maturity, discovers that Amy March is the girl of his dreams.

Steven Nicholas as Mr. John Brooke, the future groom of Meg March, once a soloist with the Boston Pops in a tribute to Irving Berlin, has a splendid voice and combined with his dark, brooding manner, is cast ideally with the angelic Matthews. It is a match made in casting heaven.

Less is more, and Roman Tatarowicz, set design, derives a fluid, cathedral spire of a set, that creates depth, rise and context in each scene with its revolving stage. Understanding that these seamless scene changes are not as simple as they appear, the audience appreciates the quick transitions.

Musical Director Mark Yurkanin and his orchestra of five veteran musicians provided a full tone to support the harmonies and dance numbers such as Act I’s “Delighted”, “Five Forever” and Act II’s “The Weekly Volcano Press.” The intimate ballads are quite memorable and include “Some Things Are Meant To Be” between Jo and Beth, “Days of Plenty” sung by Marmee, and “The Fire Within Me” sung by Jo. At times, the actors’ singing was not heard, either the music was overpowering them, or the microphones could have used an adjustment on the vocal numbers.

Book by Allan Knee
Music by Jason Howland
Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein
Directed by Susan D. Atkinson
May 3 – May 22, 2011
Bristol Riverside Theatre
120 Radcliffe Street
Bristol, PA 19007 

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