Theatre Review: Little Women shines bright with talent and heart

Little-Women cast.jpg

There’s a hidden gem shining brightly at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver. And it’s worth making the trek through the rain and snow to experience this wonderful holiday treat.

The show is Little Women: The Musical. But the shining gem is the magnificently talented cast and the wonderful care that has been taken by director Lalainia Lindbjerg and her creative team in bringing the show to life. And the star of the show, young Michelle Creber, delivers an exceptionally brilliant performance that should not be missed – in fact, her performance will likely be remembered and talked about for years to come.

Based on Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel about four sisters during the American Civil War, it’s evident that everyone involved with this production has taken extraordinary measures to make this show happen. Somehow costume designer Christina Sinosich has conjured up the extensive amount of period costumes required. Perhaps the costumes for the men weren’t such a hassle (I think I have many of the same items that actor William Tippery wears, in my closet), but to dress six 19th century female characters over the course of a few years is an ambitious task and Sinosich has done a brilliant job.

Likewise, Todd Ablett’s set design takes us from a boarding house in 1866 New York, to the home of the March family in Concord, Massachusetts. The attention to detail and craftsmanship of the sets is very impressive, down to the period-looking books sitting on the boarding house bookshelf, and the quaint mantle of the March living room fireplace. While I imagine the resources were limited for such a huge undertaking, director Lindbjerg knows how to distract us from seeing the stage crew manually changing sets, by directing our focus to other areas of the stage during scene changes. The overall vision of the show is very impressive – it’s as if Alcott’s classic story has literally come to life on the Kay Meek stage.

 Michelle Creber stars as Jo March. Photo: Kevin Clark

Michelle Creber stars as Jo March. Photo: Kevin Clark

There are a few little things I found bothersome. When Amy (played by Julia MacLean) is carried into the house after her ice skating accident, it’s odd that she isn’t still wearing skates. I can’t imagine that the first priority was to change her footwear after her life-threatening encounter. Also, there were several times during the show when I couldn’t quite make out the lyrics being sung, as the performers were overpowered by the orchestra. Furthermore, it wasn’t until near the end of the show that I realized the attic was indeed an attic – to me, the set looks more like the front porch of a house.

Some may voice their criticism that Knee’s book strays too much from Alcott’s original novel. Whereas Alcott’s story more or less focuses on all four sisters equally, the musical version is definitely about the eldest sister, Jo. But I like this re-telling of the story – in a Broadway musical, four main protagonists are a lot to focus on. By telling the story through the eyes of one central character, Knee has made Alcott’s novel more digestible for a theatrical stage.

However, I’m not a huge fan of Jason Howland’s music or Mindi Dickstein’s lyrics. While the show is set in the 19th century, the score is mostly contemporary – which is fine. But many of the songs that serve as dialogue for the characters to sing to each other, such as “Take a Chance on Me” when Laurie tries to date Jo, or the romantic duet “More than I Am” between Meg and her suitor John Brooke, don’t seem to go anywhere musically. The songs never seem to take off. However, Howland and Dickstein’s score seem to work much better with solos when the characters express their inner dialogue with themselves – the most obvious examples being Jo’s “Astonishing” and “The Fire Within Me”.

As Jo, Michelle Creber delivers a stunning performance that is heartfelt, intelligent and above all, genuine. Watch as she literally transforms from a young tomboy, wild and unruly in her demeanour, to a mature young woman – poised, knowledgeable and patient. Through it all, Creber lives and breathes the essence of Jo March, a heroine adored for her unwavering love to her family and her ability to dream and storytell. It doesn’t hurt that Creber has an amazing voice. But she’s more than a singer and an actress – she’s a true artist. Her solo near the end of the show, “The Fire Within Me” is a magnificent display of theatrical artistry, where every lyric and note Creber sings is wonderfully tied to a thought or feeling her character has.  

 Real life mother and daughter, Monique and Michelle Creber as Marmee and Jo March. Photo: Kevin Clark

Real life mother and daughter, Monique and Michelle Creber as Marmee and Jo March. Photo: Kevin Clark

The cast does a magnificent job of developing their characters throughout the show. Julia MacLean’s journey as the youngest sister Amy, is brilliant. To see her grow from her teenage angst phase, into a young adult is wonderful to see. And I’m very glad that Maclean is able to unleash her spectacular singing voice near the end of the show.

Jennifer Gillis delivers a sweet and emotionally touching performance as Beth, and Ranae Miller’s nightingale voice is a treat to listen to, as Meg. Playing the mother to the four sisters, Monique Creber (who is also the show’s musical director), has a genuine warmth to her performance. By chance, Monique and Michelle Creber are real life mother and daughter, which obviously further enhances their mother/daughter relationship onstage.

As the cute boy-next-door, William Tippery is quite adorable. His portrayal of Laurie is full of innocence and energy. In contrast, Erik Gow is suitably more rigid as Professor Bhaer and the dichotomy between Tippery and Gow’s characterizations give the show a nice balance. Chris Adams has an outstanding, robust voice and it’s wonderful to hear him sing in his role as John Brooke. While his role isn’t huge, Stephen Aberle is excellent as the mean-spirited (at first) Mr. Laurence – his tall stature and commanding stage presence works very nicely for this role. And Colleen Winton is wickedly hilarious in her role as the intimidating Aunt March.

The show’s cast is superb and I encourage every theatre fan in the Vancouver area to come experience this incredible talent. And while the men in the show are fantastic, this show is about the women. It’s a fantastic piece to showcase and celebrate the strength and talent of these women, led by its glorious leading lady, Michelle Creber. Make no mistake, this show isn’t about little women. It’s about fierce, sensational women.

Little Women: The Musical, a Kay Meek co-presentation with Creber Productions and Bring on Tomorrow Co. plays until December 30 at the Kay Meek Centre. For more information and tickets, visit the Kay/Meek website.