‘Little Women: The Broadway Musical’ Is Another Home Run for Greater Boston Stage

Cast of ‘Little Women’ at Greater Boston Stage Company – L to R Sarah Coombs, Liza Giangrande, Amy Barker, Abriel Coleman, Katie Shults

‘Little Women: The Broadway Musical’ – Book by Allan Knee based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott. Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein and Music by Jason Howland. Directed and Choreographed by Ilyse Robbins. Music Directed by Matthew Stern. Scenic Design by Shelley Barish. Lighting Design by Katie Whittemore. Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley. Sound Design by John Stone. Presented by the Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham through December 23.

by Shelley A. Sackett

Greater Boston Stage Company has a knack for picking the perfect material and director for its holiday offering. Last year, the musical, ‘All Is Calm,’ also directed and choreographed by the talented Ilyse Robbins, was a crowd pleaser that raised the bar and spoke to audience members of all faiths with a message that transcended the usual Christmas pablum. This year, with its flawless production of Little Women: The Broadway Musical, that bar got even higher. At 150 minutes (including intermission), the play didn’t seem too long, a feat in and of itself.

Based on Louisa May Alcott’s tale of four respectable sisters growing up poor but honest in Civil War-era Concord, MA, the musical follows the adventures of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March. Their individual personalities bubble up from the get go. Meg (the riveting Sara Coombs) is the eldest and most traditional of the sisters, prim and proper but romantic and sweet-natured. Jo (Liza Giangrande, giving a grand performance), the willful, spirited center and Alcott proxy in her novel, “Little Women”, is a perfect musical-theater heroine. Equally driven to become a published author and challenge stereotypes about what it means to be a woman, she belongs on the masthead of Ms. Magazine.

Beth (third year Boston Conservatory at Berklee student Abriel Colemanis) is timid, musical, and selflessly encouraging and helpful. By contrast, Amy (Katie Shults) is the spoiled baby of the family, overindulged and used to getting her own way. Shults plays her perfectly, capturing her pouty, tantrum-prone outbursts without erasing her underlying puppy-like irresistibility. At the helm of this brood is Marmee (the rock solid Amy Barker), the backbone of the March family who manages to remain strong in spite of the difficulties she faces.

The play opens in New York, where Jo is living at Mrs. Kirk’s boarding house, trying to peddle her wild, swashbuckling stories to anyone who will listen to her pitch. Fritz Bhaer (subtly and effectively played by Kevin Patrick Martin), the sensible German professor also boarding with Mrs. Kirk, tries to persuades Jo that she is better than the “blood and guts stuff” she has chosen to write. She should try, he urges, to write more from her heart about what she knows.

In a magnificent flashback that establishes the cast’s astonishing vocal and physical abilities, Jo tells him about the “Operatic Tragedy” she wrote and had her family perform on Christmas one year. The actors bring Jo’s story to life in true melodrama form. Coombs, in particular, shines.

Thanks to a well-designed triptych set (Shelley Barish) and spot-on lighting (Katie Whittemore), the audience has no trouble following the action as it moves from the March home to New York to the March attic, which is Jo’s special writing cave.

Along the way, we are introduced to characters who add spice while moving the plot along. Wealthy Aunt March (a terrific Deanna Dunmyer) wants to take Jo under her wing and treat her to a tour of Europe, but only if she agrees to change from a tomboy to a proper society lady. Their duet, “Could You?” is as musically stunning as it is hilarious. Dunmyer steals every scene she is in with her acerbic wit and perfect, sing-song cadence.

When Meg and Jo are invited to a St. Valentine’s Day ball, they meet Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Kenny Lee, talented and poised beyond his years), the lonely and guileless boy next door who infiltrates the March sisterhood and becomes an honorary brother. He and Jo share an ease and intimacy that, unfortunately for Laurie, doesn’t translate into romance.

While hardly the most sophisticated or musically unforgettable show to hit Broadway (critics gave it a lukewarm reception when it played in 2005), the cast and crew at Greater Boston Stage hone in on its strengths and wring it dry. Robbins’ director and choreographer chops are on full display and Music Director Matthew Stern is worth his weight in gold. Gail Astrid Buckley’s period costumes add just the right touch.

But the real standing ovation goes to the universally airtight performances by an impeccable ensemble cast. What a gift to their audience, especially to this viewer, who has the enviable pleasure of writing an effusive review of a not-to-be-missed show. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.greaterbostonstage.org/

Cirque de Soleil’s ‘Twas the Night Before…’ Is True Family Holiday Fare

Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Twas the Night Before…’ at the Boch Center

by Shelley A. Sackett

‘Twas the Night Before…, Cirque de Soleil’s first Christmas show, delivered a sunny holiday respite from the blinding rain last Wednesday night. But the 85-minute intermission-less show was more than just shelter from the storm — it was a family-friendly retelling of the familiar Christmas classic with all the thrill, glitz, and mind-boggling contortions that have become Cirque de Soleil trademarks.

The lighting, set design and costumes were nothing to sneeze at, either.

Inspired by Clement Clarke Moore‘s poem, “A Visit From St. Nicolas,” the updated Cirque version tells the story of teenaged Isabella (Alicia Beaudoin) and her journey from world weary self-absorbed indifference to renewed wide-eyed reverence and appreciation for the magic that is the Christmas spirit.

The show opens on Christmas Eve, and Isabella and her father (Benjamin Thomas Courtney) are set to read “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” as they do every year. Only this year, Isabella feels she is too cool for such an old fashioned and boring tradition. She is simply too trendy for her father and his outdated ways.

Alicia Beaudoin and Benjamin Thomas Courtenay

Her dad is frustrated that his once close relationship with his daughter has been disrupted by smart phones and social media. He hopes reading the poem together will rekindle Isabella’s passion for Christmas. He tries everything, but not even the gift of a bow-adorned bicycle can snap her out of her Scrooge-like mood.

Suddenly, like magic, the poem comes to life. A snowstorm comes out of nowhere, , separating Isabella and her father and sending them on a fantastic journey full of — you guessed it — circus performers.

And this is where the show really takes off.

Isabella wanders through this wonderland, and we walk in her shadow through an enchanted wonderland of tinsel arches (12,200 linear feet of garland) and piles of glistening snow (5,000 cubic feet, or five large dump trucks’ worth). Each change of hue in the lighting creates a new mood and dream-like charm, signaling a new act that is inspired by separate lines from the poem.

In the Land of the Poem, Isabella encounters the Straps Duo, an aerial act performed 20 feet in the air. Jolly the Juggler is a colorful and comedic character who befriends her and becomes her guide. The Acrobatic Table Act features naughty children who make a ruckus while waiting for Santa to arrive. Their charming striped pajama costumes with animal ear hoodies evoke children’s cake toppers come to life.

There is the saucy and spoiled starlet, Ava, who performs remarkable feats on a gilded luggage rack in a sequined outfit that makes her look like the gift she thinks she is. Two disco-clad green-haired roller skaters reach speeds up to 30 mph on a platform just six feet in diameter. Most remarkably, an artist is suspended by her hair, performing 100 turns at a top speed of seven turns per second. Clad in a silver sequined costume and palming globe lights, she is breathtaking, part spritely ballerina, part sexy Tinkerbelle.

There is a snowball fight that overflows into the audience, disco dancers, performers in the aisles and other tricks guaranteed to thrill the youngsters and keep them engaged. In short, it is good old-fashioned family entertainment with something for everyone.

Eventually, Isabella and her father reunite, and together they read aloud the familiar lines that introduce Santa’s reindeer — and the Cirque Hoop Divers, acrobats dressed in charming and effective gold lamé. They look like globs of human mercury as they sail through hoops as high as 10 feet and as small in diameter as 18 inches.

Although the recorded soundtrack is an energetic mixture of original and traditional Christmas, it is way too loud to enjoy. (I wish I had had earplugs. It was that loud). The costumes are, as always, superb and the makeup and hair departments bring life to the show’s colorful characters.

There would be no Cirque de Soleil without the remarkable cadre of Cirque performers who exact the super-human from their human bodies, and ‘Twas is no exception. “How do they do that?” my friend and I kept asking each other, knowing full well that for our earth bound selves, these questions were merely rhetorical.

‘Twas the Night Before…’ – Conceived and Directed by James Hadley. Production by Cirque de Soleil at Boch Center Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont St., Boston through December 11.For more info and tickets, go to: https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/twas-the-night-before