Wednesday, February 22, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Little Women: The Musical" at Moonlight Stage Productions

Moonlight's Astonishing "Women"

North County Company’s Supreme Revival Brims with Passion, Powerhouse Performances

By Donnie Matsuda

Nearly seven years ago, I was not a fan of Little Women: The Musical.

At that time, the newly musical-ized version of the durable Louisa May Alcott novel had played on Broadway and was touring the country with some notable names in leading roles (the tour production I saw starred Maureen McGovern as the March family matriarch Marmee). After sitting through an over three hour long production filled with lackluster performances, boring ballads, and a seemingly pointless plotline, I left the theatre wondering why anyone thought this story was worthy of a full musical adaptation. Does it really make sense for these (mostly) prim and proper Civil War-era sisters to belt out ballads at the slightest twinge of emotion and dance rings around their 19th century parlor?

Hilary Maiberger (left) and Susan Stuber. Photo by Ken Jacques.

Thus, it was with great apprehension that I attended Moonlight Stage Productions’ current revival of Little Women: The Musical, which is the second production in their three show winter season at the AVO Playhouse in Vista. Perhaps it is the passage of nearly seven years, or perhaps it is the breathtaking and vibrant vision that veteran director Kathy Brombacher (in her final directorial gig at the AVO before retiring this Fall) has for her passionate production. Either way, I was completely swept away with Moonlight’s charming and earnest revival, so much so that I now consider myself a fan (actually, a BIG fan) of the musical.

Jacob Haren and Hilary Maiberger. Photo by Ken Jacques.

Modern-day audiences may not be very familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel on which the musical is based. Little Women is Alcott’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about the trials and tribulations of the March sisters – tomboy Jo, idealistic Meg, artistic Amy, and compassionate Beth – as well as their beloved mother Marmee. As they fall in and out of love, pursue their dreams with humor and passion, and bear children as women of their era were expected to do, these women find solace and strength in their everlasting sisterhood.

The Company of "Little Women: The Musical." Photo by Ken Jacques.

At the heart of it all is the central character Jo, whose determination to succeed as a “blood and guts” writer and an independent woman in a war-torn society is an inspiring story that speaks to everyone, no matter what their age, gender, or generation. And in the more-than-capable hands of powerhouse performer Hilary Maiberger, the character of Jo truly springs to life and dominates nearly every scene she is in. Maiberger is such a polished and professional performer, it is hard not to be mesmerized by her incredible “star” talent every time she takes the stage. She effortlessly embodies Jo with just the right amount of self-righteousness, strength, and enthusiasm and her belt-y ballads are nothing short of astonishing.

As Jo’s frail sister Beth, Sarah Errington delivers an exquisitely tender performance and showcases an incredibly sweet soprano, while Alexis Grenier is appropriately sweet and sensible as sister Meg. Leslie Tammone as Amy, the youngest and most self-conscious March daughter, is completely convincing as the immature brat who spitefully burns Jo’s novel in Act One, but is even more captivating with her seamless transition into a more grown-up, married woman in Act Two. And at the helm of it all is the incomparable Susan Stuber as family matriarch Marmee. Stuber is perfectly cast in the role, investing her Marmee with incredible warmth, a strict maternal instinct, and a rye sense of humor.

The Company of "Little Women: The Musical." Photo by Ken Jacques.

While the women are the focus of his musical, the men are equally as strong in their more supporting roles. Jacob Haren is easy on the eyes and the ears as Laurie, the boy next door who falls in love with Jo, but allows fate to change his affections for another March girl. Haren plays his character sincerely and attacks his songs with a glorious, vibrant tenor. As Meg’s love interest John, Andrew Wade is as vanilla as it gets while Don Ward gets a terrific turn as the crotchety Mr. Laurence. Rounding out the cast is a credible Bryan Vickery as Jo’s roommate cum love interest Professor Bhaer and an exquisite Susan Boland as the scene-stealing, pompous, and fire-tongued Aunt March.

Director Kathy Brombacher brings with her decades of experience helming musical theatre productions and it truly shows in this first-rate revival. Her earnest direction effectively captures the heart and spirit of the piece, while also showcasing some exuberant and impassioned performances that make this otherwise mediocre material simply soar. Combined with Carlos Mendoza’s sprightly choreography, Dr. Terry O’Donnell’s fantastic four-piece orchestra, N. Dixon Fish’s rustic and multi-functional set, and Carlotta Malone’s sumptuous 19th-century costumes, Moonlight’s spirited revival is as good as Little Women: The Musical gets.

Things to know before you go: Little Women – The Musical plays at Moonlight Stage Production’s AVO Playhouse through March 11, 2012. Running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $22-$30. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 724-2110 or visit

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