By Barry Reszel
There are three inextricably tied takeaways from storefront theatre Brown Paper Box’s current production of the musical Little Women.
First, there can be no doubt this is a serious candidate for the most underrated musical songbook in the American canon. Punctuated with soaring anthems, tender ballads and numerous combinations of the two, Jason Howland‘s magnificent score and Mindi Dickstein‘s tender lyrics, when sung well (and they certainly are by this talented cast), is a second-to-none listening experience. (Order the Broadway cast album, featuring the perfect Sutton Foster, here.)
When considering how it’s used to help tell Louisa May Alcott‘s empowered-women story of 150 years past, sprinkled with tragedies (some comedically operatic, some simply heart-breakingly sad), it’s easy to see how underappreciated this collection of music really is. For it is truly the song structure that allows this stage presentation of an old-time pseudo autobiography (book by Alan Knee) to have a semblance of contemporaneity. The musical’s ability to focus on the timeless elements of desire, drive, loyalty and emotion rather than being mired in the societal mores of the 19th Century in which its set is a testament to this endearing music and lyrics.
I recently heard from someone who knew of Howland’s devastation over the musical’s short 2005 Broadway run, lack of commercial success and the New York critics’ mean-spirited criticism of his Little Women. He was also the show’s producer, no doubt feeling a kinship to the story set in his hometown of Concord, Mass.
Following his perceived slight over this fine show, he said he would never write another musical. Sure, he must feel a morsel of vindication after winning the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album for his work producing the cast recording of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. But here’s hoping Howland pens another original score for the stage and receives the Broadway acclaim he richly deserves.
Takeaway number two from Brown Paper Box’s Little Women production is that I’d love to be Tessa Dettman‘s agent, or better yet, write the review that started a war among agents to represent her.
This 2017 Northwestern University graduate who plays Jo, the oldest of the Massachusetts March sisters awaiting their father’s return from Civil War duty, is an especially nuanced actor with a lovely voice. From the opening “An Operatic Tragedy,” Dettman turns the the rectangular stage into the family attic from which she narrates the story, with patrons seated along both of its longest sides. She belts the solos and and quartets “Five Forever,” “Astonishing,” and “Weekly Volcano Press” and leaves nary a dry eye on the gut-wrenching duet “Some Things Are Meant to Be” with dying sister Beth, played (and sung) lovingly by Sarah Ford. Without question, “Astonishing” and “Some Things Are Meant to Be” are two of American musical theatre’s finest songs.
Indeed this show is owned by its strong women characters and the talented ladies who portray them. (Little Women‘s plot summary, character breakdown and production history are here.) Kim Green and Andi Sharavsky play Amy and Meg with aplomb. So, too, do Denise Tamburrino as Marmee (the girls’ mother) and Jenny Rudnick as the prissy Aunt March deliver stellar, professional performances.
Among the men, Ken Rubenstein as Mr. Laurence particularly warms audiences’ hearts (along with his character’s) in the delightful duet “Off to Massachusetts,” sung with “Dreadful Beth.” Matthew Fafyer is a believable Professor Bhaer with a lovely voice. Will Kazda and Dwayne Everett deliver enthusiastic performances as Laurie and Meg’s love interest John Brooke, respectively.
Takeaway number three is that this production demands it’s time for Brown Paper Box to receive a little more love from Chicagoland’s musical theatre patrons and media. In less than 10 years, this company has launched careers of actors now playing larger stages (Matt Frye, Neala Barron and Yando Lopez to name but three). They’ve paid their dues, and the hard work of Kristi Szczepanek, M. William Panek and Anna Schutz (among countless others) is putting this company in the same category as other Chicagoland storefront gems like Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre and Refuge Theatre Project. That means Chris Jones should show up on opening night.
To wit, Directors Panek and Stephanie Rohr keep this story moving at breakneck speed, allowing the songs to tell as much of the tale as the dialogue. Moveable steamer trunks stored with props, a few pieces of of suspended wood and just enough period costuming by Meagan Beattie set the stories told from the family attic with fine believability. And while a fuller sound to play this gorgeous score would be wonderful, Justin Harner on solo piano is a bona fide hero of this production, and his skills are so exemplary that audiences don’t feel a single missed beat.
So mark Brown Paper Box’s Little Women as 2019’s first not-to-be-missed production. Unsuspecting patrons might just find it to be astonishing.
Brown Paper Box presents “Little Women the Musical” through February 9 at the Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W Berenice Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.