Posted by: pop-break | August 21, 2012

Cast Review: ‘Little Women’ by the Allegra School of Performing Arts

pop-break sees a wonderful young New Jersey cast perform a delightful version of the Broadway musical …

Inside a small theater off a tree-lined county road in suburban Hillsborough, N.J., this weekend, a group of young actors and crew members reminded their audience of something inspiring:

That even at a time when theater isn’t exactly thriving in the world, there is plenty of talent still blossoming on the stage. That was the key lesson of the Allegra School of Performing Arts’ rendition of Little Women: The Broadway Musical at the Somerset Valley Playhouse.

Every year, Allegra sets out to give young thespians in Central Jersey a chance to develop their skills. They spend a chunk of their summer vacation in rehearsals. And in the end, they present a play to a live audience.

The cast of the Allegra School of Performing Arts’ version of Little Women.
(Photo: Yuri Marder)

They have only three weeks to put it all together. But as this weekend showed, the final result was not a lackluster community theater project with cardboard scenery and missed cues. Instead, Little Women was a performance filled with striking costumes and a live orchestra, put on by teenagers and twentysomethings who could very well be making curtain calls for years to come.

And no, Little Women isn’t an easy play. Every high schooler knows Little Women is a classic novel written by Louisa May Alcott about a family of four sisters growing up quickly in Civil War-era New England. Then, about a decade ago, the novel was transformed into a Broadway musical that mixes humor, pathos and a score that seems pretty and catchy at first yet is actually filled with moments that challenge even the most seasoned singers. In Act I, we meet a family who vows to stay together forever, while learning the fun and perils of ambition, romance and war. In Act II, we learn that a simple illness can shake even the strongest family and that love can bring joy back to the fold.

Allegra’s actors handled it all with flair. As Jo March — the eager, whip-smart oldest sister who yearns to be a writer — Laura Couch took on a role loaded with a string of emotions: excitement, suspicion, sadness, wisdom beyond her years. Couch showed each of them with the exuberance and presence of a veteran actress. She clearly has developed the trait that makes an acting career: the ability to command a stage.

So does Phillip Barrood, who played two very different roles: the reserved, seemingly cold Professor Bahr and the cocky teenager Laurie Laurence. One minute, Barrood was using a convincing German accent. The next, he was delivering clever one-liners. The next, he was belting out tunes with a robust singing voice. He was like a TV actor from the 1950s: physical and vocal, but also smart.

The actresses playing the other three March sisters were also a delight. Isabel Nappa was charming and heartbreaking as Beth, the youngest sister whose fate triggers the sudden, tear-jerking shift of Act II. Zoë Epstein flashed infectious confidence as the romantic Meg. Sarah Kulick showed a panache for deadpan delivery as the social-climbing Amy, cracking jokes with ease and stealing scenes with just a look.

Sarah Kulick as Amy and Phillip Barrood as Laurie Laurence in Little Women.
(Photo: Yuri Marder)

Kyle Gornick showed great comic timing as the stern, elderly Mr. Laurence. Brian Stiroh balanced humor and grace as the handsome suitor John Brooke and the villainous Braxton Pendergast, the antagonist in one of Jo’s stories. Maryellen Molnar shined in another dual performance — seamlessly showing an air of refinement and stubbornness as Aunt March, the woman who tries to teach her nieces the ways of society, and sporting a strong Irish accent as boarding house owner Mrs. Kirk.

Another of the show’s scene-stealers was Aubrey Malakoff as the sisters’ strong-willed mother, Marmee March. Malakoff not only delivered her lines with impressive maturity, but she also sported the prettiest
voice in the cast.

The rest of the cast were integral to the play’s show-stopper, ‘The Weekly Volcano Press’ — in which one of Jo’s stories literally comes to life. Meghna Datar anchored the number with poise as the heroine Clarissa. Lauren Bahr latterly turned heads with her strong turn as the heroic Rodrigo, swashbuckling her way through the crowd, sword triumphantly in air. Micaela Applegate was a flashy delight as a heartbreaking troll.

All three actresses were also key to something new — an addition to the original Broadway production of Little Women. During set changes, they acted out little vignettes in front of the curtain — giving a glimpse at where the next scene would be set, whether a ball, an ice skating rink, or the beach. Not only did they keep the audience from bearing through moments of silence, they also made the crowd laugh.

It was a clever addition, and only goes to prove that Allegra is filled with talent behind the scenes, too. Director Nicky Singer’s staging yielded not only tears, but many more laughs than you’d expect from an adaptation of a 19th century novel. Music Director Katie Gornick, pianist Florence Simons and pit conductor Thomas Pepitone helped guide something you don’t always see in productions this size: a full pit orchestra that lent the show an extra air of professionalism. The rest of the crew — technical director Dan Schulze, stage manager Elizabeth Valenti, assistant stage manager Dan Pino, house manager Christina Kinney, costume director Lauren Brandt, hair and makeup specialist Liz Gonzalez, and stage hand Tim Taffuri — created a believable trip back to 1860s America.

Next summer, Allegra is set to present something a little more modern and risky: Urinetown, a unique Tony-winning musical about a land where you have to pay to pee. It’s comforting to know there’s still theater like this going on miles away from midtown Manhattan.

Related posts:

Production Team Review: ‘Little Women’ by the Allegra School of Performing Arts

Hidden Stages: ‘Little Women’ by the Allegra School of Performing Arts

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