Dare 2 Defy produces musical with little drama

Little Women cast (l-r) Lindsay Sherman as Meg, Samantha Creech as Amy, Jessi Stark as Beth, and Melissa Hall as Jo.
Photo: Mackensie King

By Jerome Yorke

Dare 2 Defy opened Little Women the Broadway Musical last weekend and on Saturday afternoon, performed for a full house in the normally spacious Mathile Black Box Theatre. As the lights dim and the prelude plays, I enjoy listening to some of the motifs of this retelling of one of the most beloved stories and families in literature. Little Women was brought to life in the mid-18th century by author Louisa May Alcott. It tells the tale of the March family; Marmee, the matriarch, and her four young daughters; Jo, Beth, Meg, and Amy. During this time, families were torn apart by the Civil War as droves of men went to war, and the March family is not immune to this as we see the women of the family receive a letter from their beloved father. We follow Jo March as she longs to accomplish her dream of becoming a writer. We see early that Jo is a spitfire played perfectly by Melissa Hall, and her energy, demeanor, and clear voice held the stage confidently as the protagonist throughout the play. Jo’s trajectory is one of the plot points that makes Alcott and this story so provocative, as Alcott herself had the same hopes and dreams during a time when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Women’s Loyal League. Alcott’s semi-autobiographical story was ahead of its time, and holds much power, a power that is lost in the spectacle of this musical.

Among the empowerment of women as a main theme, which is hard to miss with our current feminism resurgence, the production does employ some compelling themes that are relevant. The March sisters are clearly close, the play shows their bond in ways that are honest on the surface, but the production doesn’t allow the room for relationships to grow in this adaptation by Allan Knee. Some other themes peek through, as there are hints of growth through loss, an obvious loss from disease, but also loss of youth, and loss of trust that never fully develop.

The cast as a whole, led by Hall, is engaged and saves the production with some fabulous voices. But again, lost in translation is the power of Alcott’s story adapted as song. Normally musicals enhance the power of a story by putting music to important moments in the plot, but in the case of this musical, it distracts. Some real bright spots come from the play within Jo’s reading of passages from her fictional writing. These scenes are great fun and lively because of the acting and melodramatic interpretation of Jo’s prized novel. Unfortunately, some of these bright spots also come with anxiety over the safety of the actors and front row of the audience. These moments where the large cast is on stage, as Jo’s fictional story progresses one gets a sense of confinement as some awkward blocking is used to accommodate the small playing space and large cast. They also use real swords that come mighty close to the front row of the audience, and at times, the other actors on the stage. There is a moment during the fight choreography where a sword is thrown across the stage in a disarm, and with the crowded stage, made me gasp in concern and disbelief that it made it through rehearsals as a good choice. To the credit of the actors, it was clear that they were aware of keeping the swords at their hip, but at times did not seem to be in as much control as is needed for the use, taking me out of the world.

Some of the design and tech elements are beautiful. The lighting design has its moments of clarity, but can also be sloppy and jarring at times, changing drastically during transitions that don’t need it. A raised, multi-level stage with sparse props and a beautiful couch next to a live orchestra excites potential, but feels cramped as it is built as a flat thrust. The thought of using levels is exciting, and at its resting state, the stage looks simple and useful. But as the cast gathers and moves on stage, the space shrinks, fast compromising the overall stage picture. There are also attempts to use the downstage area in front of the audience, but it seems too close for appropriate sight lines, and inadvertently forces the actors into becoming upstaged.

A highlight is the live orchestra, and the music by Jason Howland is entertaining. As far as musicals go, there are a few show stoppers, but there are some things that overshadow and hinder the show’s ultimate triumph. As long as you go into this production knowing that the music and singing is strong, and don’t mind a lack of drama akin to a musical revue, you will most certainly have an enjoyable evening.

Dare to Defy’s production of Little Women the Broadway Musical will be playing Dec. 8-9 at the Mathile Theatre in Dayton starting at 8 p.m. Tickets run from $16.50-$25 and can be purchased at My.TicketCenterStage.com. For more information, please visit www.D2Defy.com.

Reach theatre critic Jerome Yorke at JeromeYork@DaytonCityPaper.com

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