‘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/

GBSC’s ‘Incident’ Is a Pleasant Trip Down Memory Lane

Cast of ‘Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help’ at Greater Boston Stage

By Shelley A. Sackett

‘Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help’ will strike a particular chord among those of us whose wallets now hold Medicare and AARP cards. Written by Seattle-based playwright, Katie Forgette, it is a loving trip down her personal memory lane. She was raised Catholic and attended parochial school for 12 years. Her father was a hard working cab driver; her mother had many jobs, in addition to birthing ten children and caring for her own disabled mother.

The family wasn’t poor, but only because her parents sacrificed personal goals and worked as hard as they could to be financially comfortable.

Her play is set in the 1970s, and Shelley Barish has created a believable set that focuses on the main gathering place in the house — the kitchen. Homey, shabby and beloved, the room is full of interesting mementos of that era without feeling cluttered. (I was not alone in noticing that the clock on the set wall told the actual time, a nice touch and a visual clue that the connection between past and present is real and fluid).

Linda O’Shea/Forgette, played by Autumn Blazon-Brown, is our 20-something year old protagonist. She makes clear from the get go that, although she is narrator, she may not be a reliable one. “Memory shifts things,” she says. Telling old stories almost always involves the fallibility of memory. Two people, especially family members, remember the same event differently. She talks about the plasticity of memories, how they change over time and with each recollection to the point where, even when it comes to your own life, you may be considered an unreliable narrator.

She also points out the changes since the 1970s in the ways we communicate. “There was no posting; you lived your life in person,” she says wistfully.

Vin Vega, Barlow Adamson

Nonetheless, she is determined to tell the story of her family from her perspective to the best of her recollection.

And so we meet her mother, Jo (Amy Barker), father, Mike (Barlow Adamson), younger sister, Becky (Vin Vega) and Jo’s sister, Aunt Terri (the always fabulous Maureen Keiller). Over the next hour and 45 minutes (including an intermission), this cast of characters (along with a few hysterical cameos by a neighbor and priest) have one job and one job only — to tell the family story the way Linda remembers it.

Some of the characters are not too happy about their supporting roles. They want a monologue of their own, a chance to step up to the mike and explain their version of things. But Linda maintains control, doling out audience access sparingly and under strict time limits.

Although the plots twists and turns and the script’s clever lines draw easy laughs, the real meat and message lie in the family dynamics. They are a tight knit bunch, glued together by bonds of love, loyalty and compassion and — most importantly — humor. They soldier on, often griping and acting out, but they are actors cast in the same play and, at the end of the day, blood is thicker than anything.

Amy Barker, Autumn Blazon-Brown, Barlow Adamson

We are also treated to local parish customs and the hold the Catholic Church had over more than the religious aspects of their lives. Father Lovett and the infuriatingly patronizing church lady, Betty Heckenbach (both played with superb comic timing by Adamson) are examples of the hypocrisies and cruelty the church doled out with its communion wafers.

All the O’Sheas kowtow under the pressure to conform except Terri, who has known the pains of marital separation and barrenness, and isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade.

The riveting Keillor is her usual scene stealing self. (She was likewise phenomenal as Sherri Rosen-Mason in the SpeakEasy Stage’s 2019 production of ‘Admissions’). Her performance is calculated, physical and impeccably paced. Yet, it doesn’t have that “staged” feel. Rather, she makes Terri the warmest, realest and most 3-dimensional character on the stage.

Maureen Keillor

While Barker brings a warmth and strength to Jo and Adamson is great in his cameo roles, Vega and Blazon-Brown are weak links, delivering their lines in muffled tones at the speed of light. Too many great jokes are quashed and after a certain time, audience frustration sets in and we stop trying to catch every sentence.

Nonetheless, for Keillor’s performance and a feel-good theatrical experience, ‘Incident’ fits the bill. There are some real belly laughs, thought-provoking messages and zinger one-liners in this production. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.greaterbostonstage.org/

Greater Boston Stage’s ‘All Is Calm’ Strikes the Perfect Chord

by Shelley A. Sackett

Cast of ‘All is Calm’ at Greater Boston Stage Company. Photo by Nile Scott Studios

From the first note of the first song in the remarkably affecting ‘All Is Calm,’ the choreography chops of its director, Ilyse Robbins, are indisputably evident. Two lines of uniformed men, distinguishable by their country’s military dress, slowly march to the front of the stage as they sing the Scottish folk song, “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” They briefly merge, forming a united single line, before those in the back row return to their original and separate positions. This powerful prologue literally sets the stage and tone for the next intermission-less 70 minutes. We have entered a holy place of unity where a folksong can become a hymnal and where men have the power and ability to come together as one, even if it is merely for a fleeting moment.

This documentary musical tells a well-known true story almost exclusively through a cappella song. On Christmas Day in 1914, with World War I just five months old, enlisted men on both sides of the mucky no-mans-land trenches in Ypres, Belgium emerged to put aside their political differences and celebrate the day and their shared humanity.

Written by Peter Rothstein, the founding director of Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis who also worked at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, the play transcends its Christmas Day message and carols to deliver a powerful and universal message promoting peace, human dignity and reconciliation — a message no less welcomed by those of us lighting Hanukkah candles, spinning dreidels and recalling the battles faced by the Maccabees.

Combining storytelling, historical details, bits of poetry, archival letters and a score of 30 songs, the cast of ten men humanize their journey: from the optimism of their enthusiastic enlistment and deployment to the grim reality of war to the miraculous Christmas respite and momentary truce and back again to battle, they are individuals first, soldiers second. Robbins has gathered a splendid ensemble of complementary singing voices and acting styles, yet masterfully allows space for each performer’s unique qualities to shine as well.

The story itself is predictable. Men susceptible to war fever and the excitement it generated are crestfallen to realize that they might not survive the war they assumed would be over by Christmas. Hope curdles to despair; dreams of adventure morph into nightmares of doom. There is no revisionist history here. Rothstein presents the hardships and suffering of war in full mud-soaked misery.

What is not predictable is the emotional majesty created by Lichte and Takach’s clever interweaving and ordering of songs, particularly those chosen during the truce segment. Amidst the heartache and heartbreak of a Christmas celebrated with death and isolation instead of family and hearth, the Allied troops suddenly make out the familiar melody of “Silent Night” — sung in German. Unarmed, hands lifted and hoisting white handkerchiefs, the Germans emerge one by one. Sworn enemies unexpectedly find themselves face-to-face, one-to-one with the enemy, and “all is calm. All is bright.” Indeed, for those gun-less few moments, all is breathtakingly silent.

The men play football, exchange gifts and even help each other bury those whose deaths they caused. They talk as men, not enemies. “I have now a very different opinion of the Germans,” one soldier wistfully says.

Of course, this bottom-up hiatus can never last. Commanding officers on both sides put an immediate halt to the fraternization, and the soldiers reluctantly return to their trenches, guns obediently re-cocked and aimed. The plaintive “Auld Land Syne,” an ode to kinship remembered, switches almost imperceptibly to “We’re Here Because We’re Here,” sung mournfully as a lamentation to the immovable trap the troops find themselves in.

There are a few tricky moments with the European accents, but the cast is uniformly spot on with the a cappella singing, blending beautifully and consistently. Among the solo standouts are Christopher Chew, Brad Peloquin and David Jiles, Jr. Michael Jennings Mahoney’s haunting tenor beautifully bookended the show from prologue to epilogue.

Erik D. Diaz’s minimalist set design achieves maximum effect. A few packing crates, a starry full mooned backdrop and the constant slow seep of gauzy haze set the proper tone without distraction.

Although there is no ambiguity that ‘All Is Calm’ references Christmas, its universal message of peace transcends specificity of time, place and religion. Particularly during these times of increasing political rancor and division, this meditative production is palpably apolitical, yet makes its point while leaving us to wonder: What if ‘No Man’s Land” were truly ‘Everyman’s Land?” What if those at the top left negotiations to those in trenches? And what if those troops, ordered to go back to war after tasting the fruits of peace, had listened to Winston Churchill and simply gone on strike?

‘All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914’ – Written by Peter Rothstein; Vocal Arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach; Directed by Ilyse Robbins; Music Direction by Matthew Stern; Set Design by Erik D. Diaz; Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay; Costume Design by Bethany Mullins. Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company at 395 Main St., Stoneham through December 23, 2021.For more information or to purchase tickets, call (781) 279-2200 or visit greaterbostonstage.org. Masks are required for all visitors, as well as proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours. For more information about safety, visit geraterbostonstage.org/health-and-safety.html.