Bloomington’s Artistry Brings a Musical Version of Little Woman to the Stage

Design by David Nanda

Little Women has been a favorite story since I first saw the Winona Ryder film adaptation in theaters in 1994. I’ve since read the novel by Louisa May Alcott and seen various other screen adaptations, but this was my first experience of it on the stage. It’s a mixed bag of an adaptation, much of it works well, but when it falls short, it’s in fairly significant ways. But, if you are a fan as I am of Alcott’s timeless story of the four March sisters and the characters that orbit them, you’ll have a very enjoyable evening out.

Little Women the Broadway Musical tells the story of the March family of Concord Massachusetts during and following the civil war. The father is away at war and Marmee March is raising her four daughters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The story focuses on Jo as we’ll learn she is the one who has written down the story of her and her sisters. Most of the play is told in a flashback as it opens after the war is over and Jo has moved to New York City to become a writer. She is having a conversation with her friend Professor Bhaer and reads him one of her “blood and cuts” stories which transitions nicely into the past where Jo and her sisters prepare to act out her latest opus. Jo is the passionate nonconformist writer in the family. Meg the romantic but also down to earth sister. Amy the baby and brat of the family. Beth the timid and selfless daughter. They are befriended by Laurie, the grandson of the wealthy old curmudgeon across the street. From that, friendship flourishes other relationships that enrich the story; Laurie’s Tutor John Brooke and his Grandfather also become involved with the family. The heart of the story is the relationships between the sisters, their mother Marmee, and the connections and bonds that form with those around them.

The book for the musical by Allan Knee hits most of the major plot points of the novel. But the whole thing feels like the Cliff Notes version. If you were not familiar with the story I’d wonder if you would really understand everything thing that happens. None of the relationships are given the time to develop. For instance, the relationship between Laurie’s Grandfather and Beth. If you know the story you can extrapolate from the one scene they are given. If not, Well then it seems like a throwaway scene that’s an excuse for a fun song. Towards the end there is a song between Beth and Jo at the seaside that tells us about their special bond, the problem is that special bond is being told to us at the end of the play, when it should have been shown to us throughout the play. The most grievous error in judgment comes in the portrayal of Beth. In the novel, and other adaptations, Beth is timid and shy, she is a homebody but has a heart of gold who would give the food off her table or even her life to those less fortunate than herself. There is nothing of that character here. She is vibrant and outgoing there is nothing about the character in this version that rings true to its source. It’s hard to say if the actor Lauren Hugh who plays Beth, made these choices or if she was directed to this interpretation. I tend to think it’s the latter as the script seems to sidestep the clues to the character that we would normally see. What makes the four sisters so enduring is they are all unique and fully formed characters. Each is an individual but in this version, Beth and Meg are almost interchangeable. Beth is the most poignant characters in the entire novel, but here to achieve that all we are left with is her fate, a plot point rather than a character. That is the major flaw with this bullet point adaptation, none of the characters have room to grow and change. The other disappointment character wise is Amy played by Shinah Hey. In Act I, she’s a brat and we kind of dislike her as the annoyingly little sister she is playing. That’s how we are supposed to feel about her. In Act II, she’s older but still a silly girl, hasn’t really matured at all, and that is not how we are supposed to feel about her. These are not really performance issues, this is script and direction.

One thing I’ve come to expect from the Artistry is superb music. Little Women the Broadway Musical is no exception. The orchestra under the musical direction of Anita Ruth was, as always, impeccable. The songs music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein were fun right from the start. The first number “An Operatic Tragedy” is an acting out of one of Jo’s stories. It’s full of humor and creativity and was a great start to the show. I enjoyed many of the songs and the cast performed them all beautifully. Standouts in the vocal department are hard to single out as they all were top notch. Bradley Johnson as Laurie and Madeline Trumble as Jo were particularly strong. Acting wise I particularly like the performances of Angela Timberman as Aunt March and Dwight Xaveir Leslie as Professor Bhaer. Neither had as much stage time as I would have liked, but both made use of every minute they got. Lastly, the Set Design by Leazah Behrens along with the lighting design by Mike Grogan worked beautifully together to create at least seven distinct locations during the course of the show. Minimal but very effective.

Little Women the Broadway Musical runs through November 28th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://artistrymn.org/2022-season.

Three From Opening Night of the Twin Cities Horror Festival

Artwork by Emily Michaels King

It’s Monster Month and that means watching scary movies, reading ghost stories, and of course the Twin Cities Horror Festival. TCHF is in it’s 10th season and I for one am grateful that many of the shows this year are in-person. I didn’t get access to the virtual shows that opened the festival last week but I will be reviewing all five of the in-person productions. Opening night I attended the first three shows. Splinter from Dangerous Productions, Blood Nocturne from The Winding Sheet Outfit, and Blackout in a Blackout from Blackout Improve. The Festival runs through Halloween, with the five shows rotating to purchase tickets to any or all performances go to https://www.tchorrorfestival.com/ On the site you will find descriptions of each show as well as each shows ratings for Language, Violence, and Blood. Below I’ve copied the schedule for the remainder of the run.

Friday, October 29
6:00pm Channel / Dogwatch Productions
7:30pm Creepy Boys / Creepy Boys
9:00pm Splinter / Dangerous Productions
10:30pm Blackout in a Blackout / Blackout Improv

Saturday, Oct 30
1:00pm Channel / Dogwatch Productions
2:30pm Blood Nocturne / Winding Sheet
4:00pm Creepy Boys / Creepy Boys
5:30pm Splinter / Dangerous Productions
7:00pm Blackout in a Blackout / Blackout Improv
8:30pm Channel / Dogwatch Productions
10:00pm Blood Nocturne / Winding Sheet 

Sunday, October 31
1:00pm Blackout in a Blackout / Blackout Improv
2:30pm Creepy Boys / Creepy Boys
4:00pm Blood Nocturne / Winding Sheet 
5:30pm Channel / Dogwatch Productions
7:00pm Splinter / Dangerous Productions

First up was Dangerous Productions Splinter, easily the scariest show of the night. Pay attention to the ratings on this one, there will be blood. Just as they did my first year reviewing the TCHF Dangerous Productions has delivered the most intense and genuinely disturbing experience. Always effective on the technical side of things, the violence feels and looks real. There will also be several moments of “how did they do that?” for the observant audience member. Hats off to the production team on this one led by Director and Production Designer Tyler Olsem-Highness. The play really begins as soon as the house doors open with Laura Mahler on stage clearly going through some hard times. It’s a wordless performance before the play properly starts but for me, it set the mood perfectly and I felt I had a handle on the emotion she was experiencing – it created a sense of sympathy from the beginning. Mahler gives a riveting performance as a woman who has lost her memory due to a traumatic event and is being experimented on by Forensic Psychologist whose experimental techniques won’t intentionally hurt her. To say much more about the plot would rob it of it’s tricks and treats. I was impressed with all the performances but a special shout out to Jay Kistler as the other guinea pig who finds just the right balance between finding the humor in a scene and then alternating to somewhere darker.

Emily Dussault Photo by Scott Pakudaitis with Graphic design by Kris Heding

The second show of the evening was The Winding Sheet Outfits Blood Nocturne. This tells the story of Erzsebet Bathory whom I knew of as the basis of the 1971 Hammer film, Countess Dracula. This version is very different. First off, it’s a musical. Secondly, it attempts to be much more truthful in it’s telling of the real life Countess. The program tells us that Blood Nocturne was created and composed by the ensemble with quotes from actual letters and testimony. While trying to set the record straight they also challenge our societies default to print the legend as it makes a better story. Even as Emily Dussault as Bathory attempts to point out the truths behind the stories, she’s at odds with the rest of the cast who insist the horrific details that have been attributed to her make for a better story. While all three shows I took in tonight were very good, this was my favorite. I loved everything about it. It’s cast deserves to be singled out. I wish the program listed the performers with their character names since they were uniformly talented, I’ll simply list them all. Amber Bjork (also the Director), Kayla Dvorak Feld, Derek Lee Miller, Boo Segersin, Joshua Swantz, and the aforementioned Emily Dussault as the Countess. All of them are adept and find the darkest shades of humor within this gruesome biography. The cast plays the period instruments that accompany the songs and they are quite accomplished musically. The Orchestrations are simple, but haunting.

The third and final show of the evening for me was Blackout in a Blackout by Blackout Improv. The only thing of value I can say about this is to praise the performers. Let’s face it, this is improv, it’s going to be different with every performance, and if it isn’t, well you don’t really want to know that do you? So the less said about the storyline that emerged, the better. What I can tell you is that I’m already thinking of trying to catch this improv troupe again sometime. The group worked really well together and found a way to keep the laughs coming while also managing to try and add a touch of the supernatural to the proceedings. Find out more about them here https://www.blackoutcomedy.org/.

Disney’s Frozen is a Triumphant Return of Broadway to Hennepin Avenues Orpheum Theatre

Caroline Bowman (Elsa) and Caroline Innerbichler (Anna) Photo by Deen van Meer

I was lucky enough to attend opening night of the first Broadway on Hennepin production since the theatre shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. What an audience to experience a show with. The energy in the auditorium was electric as evidenced by the cheers, whoops, and hollars that greeted the onstage welcoming of the audience back into the Orpheum. We all knew we were in for a treat and it felt like we were all in it together. Disney’s Frozen did not disappoint. A spectacular production that brings the beloved animated film to life before our very eyes. Featuring Production Design and Special Effects work that make the magic of the story seem real. A refreshingly diverse cast that grounded the fantasy in a way that made this storybook world relatable. The film touched a generation of kids the way The Little Mermaid did 25 years before it, along with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Pinocchio did before that. It has the opportunity to create that same spark of fascination in this generation for what live theatre can do. The five year old, for whom Frozen was their first film in the theatre, is now the perfect age for it to be the first large scale theatrical experience. What a perfect way to nurture a new theatre audience.

I grew up at a time when there might be one or two childrens shows that would tour around the country reenacting a TV show or film live. These usually featured performers in big costumes, lip synching to prerecorded audio track with neat special effects, but not frequently on ice skates. In 1994, Disney decided to change that. With a Best Picture Academy Award nomination for Beauty and the Beast they made the decision to try and transform that beloved film into a legitimate Broadway musical; not just a cash grab outing for parents to get the kids out of the house between animated film releases. That show ran for 13 years on Broadway. Their next outing The Lion King won six Tony awards. We are a long way from Disney on Ice here folks. Frozen continues that tradition and while it is not the risk taker that Beauty and the Beast was in 1994, or the the groundbreaking creative endeavor of The Lion King in 1998, it stands as a fully realized Broadway Musical far removed from civic centers filled with light up wands and cones of cotton candy.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last eight years, you know the plot of Frozen. The production doesn’t stray from the film. The key to these adaptations is not the changes you make but the talent you gather to realize the source in a new medium. We know Disney has the resources and the “emagineers” to create a spectacular production, and I will touch on that as well. The most important aspect of any successful show are the actors, dancers, and puppeteers on stage. Frozen’s cast is top notch from top to bottom. The two leads Caroline Bowman as Elsa and Twin Cities own Caroline Innerbichler as Anna, are perfectly cast as the two princesses. Bowman is up to the challenge of what is undoubtedly the most complex role. An arc that moves from a socially distant, frightened, and hesitant Princess, to a self-banished but newly self-realized Ice Queen, back to something more reflective of the more carefree little girl that the show opens on. We feel the reluctant determination of Elsa to keep Anna distant in order to protect her. We also feel her power and authority when her powers are unshackled and she is allowed to be who she is inside, the joy that comes and the confidence of not having to hide who she is any longer. A powerful singing voice that commands the stage in her rendition of “Let It Go” at the end of Act 1. Innerbichler as Anna is full of impulsivity and humor. She plays Anna as a girl bursting to be out exploring the world interacting with everything but who has been stuck inside, separated from all the things that make life so enriching. Sound familiar? She is wide eyed, determined, and plays all of the humor with the pitch perfect timing. Speaking of pitch, she has a beautiful singing voice that skillfully embodies the emotions of the character, the wonder, excitement, and yes, humor. I cannot wrap up my reflections on the two princesses without acknowledging the endearing work of the children playing Young Anna, Olivia Jones and Young Elsa, Natalia Artigas. I’m always amazed at the talent of these young performers, the confidence, acting, and the singing. You know you are watching talented kids when you forget you are watching kids but see the characters, both of these young women accomplished that feat from the moment they took the stage.

The cast is rounded out by Austin Colby as Hans. He perfectly conveys the dual nature of the role, making his characters big change later in the show feel fresh despite the familiarty most will have with the story. He sells both sides of the character brilliantly. Mason Reeves as Kristoff bringing to the stage a looseness and energy that feels very welcome; along with, the camaraderie of Innerbichler’s Anna and his Reindeer best friend Sven feels playful and natural. Which brings us to two of the cleverest and unfortunately under utilized performances. First off Sven, the Reindeer performed by Collin Baja, is an amazing physical performance. It’s more than a man in a horse costume, there is a height and structure to the costume that defies immediate understanding of its structure. There are certainly extensions on the limbs of the animal giving it a quality that completely removes it from reminding one of a human on all fours. The role is alternated nightly I would assume due to the sheer physical stamina the role demands. The movement of Baja in the role is an art unto itself and the costume design with eyes that blink is brilliant. I’m not sure who to credit Sven’s design to, Christopher Oram the Scenic and Costume Designer, or Michael Curry the Puppet Designer. I do know that we can credit Michael Curry for the Olaf the snowman puppet, which is the other standout non-human role of Frozen. F. Michael Haynie is Olaf and as such, is required to voice the character as well as perform the movements of the puppet that represents the character. This is not a new technique for bringing to life such a character but it is the most effective and I think the most rewarding as well. Could Disney have created some sort of robotic Olaf to be used on stage? Yes, we actually get a hint briefly of that idea, but they don’t go that route and I think that illustrates an important choice. By going the puppet route they are inviting young audience members to see a creative answer to how to bring something imaginary to life. There are enough “Wow” moments in the show created by Special Effects Designer Jeremy Chernick, where young people will be amazed and wonder “how did they do that?”. It’s nice to show them as well something they can understand that is also very effective. That, and it allows us the pleasure of Haynie’s performance which is one of inspired comic relief and one of the joys of this show.

Collin Baja (Sven) and F. Michael Haynie (Olaf) Photo by Deen van Meer

Disney’s Frozen adaptation features a book by Jennifer Lee from her screenplay for the animated film. In addition to their original songs from the film Kristen anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have written around a dozen new songs for the Musical. Unfortunately, none of the new songs really capture our imagination like the originals do. The two exceptions that do add to the show are “A Little Bit You” performed by the Young Anna and Young Elsa, and “Hygge” which is a fun little showstopper that doesn’t add much to the story but definitely adds some laughs. The show itself will delight children of all ages, whether they are just getting into Frozen or if they were fans when they were younger. It also plays well to adults, there is much talent and creativity on display, amazing effects, and spectacle. If you enjoy theatre, you’re going to have a great time with Frozen!

Disney’s Frozen is part of the Bank of America Broadway on Hennepin Season from the Hennepin Theatre Trust. The production runs through October 20th at the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis for more information and to buy tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/frozen-broadway-tickets-minneapolis-mn-2021/