“The full cast of eleven are in fine voice, supported by the rich string arrangements of the music”
Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women”, originally published in two separate volumes in the 1860s, was said to be one of the first visions of the ‘All-American Girl’. It was hailed as being ahead of its time, and as such has stood the test of time. Continuously in print, with many film and television adaptations under its belt, it finally made it into musical form at the beginning of this century, opening on Broadway in 2005. Today’s audiences might not find the scenario unduly innovative, but it is its charm and endearing representation of the multi-layered personalities that draw you into the story. And Bronagh Lagan’s staging at the Park Theatre has charm in abundance.
The ’Little Women’ are the four March sisters: Amy, Beth, Meg – and Jo steering them through the treacherous subplots of growing up. The rites of passage are brilliantly navigated here by the strong cast that give a passionate portrayal of the inevitable loss of innocence when childhood and womanhood overlap. This is also one of its only snags, though, particularly in the first half when the characters’ young ages jar slightly with the on-stage physicality. But that minor moan is swiftly swept away as we get caught in the current of song and story.
The story focuses on the sisters’ differences. Amy is the baby, yearning for sophistication that’s out of reach. Selfless Beth is timid and musical. Meg, the eldest, is the most traditional, while Jo burns with a determined passion, struggling to find her place in the world. Allan Knee’s book pushes Jo centre stage, whose fiery energy Lydia White captures marvellously, while her theatrical generosity allows the others to shine too. Mary Moore is a bundle of joy as the young Amy, Anastasia Martin is ultimately heart-breaking as the tragic Beth and Hana Ichijo deftly mixes romanticism and pragmatism of the oldest sister Meg in probably the most difficult personality to portray. Savannah Stevenson’s charisma rules the roost as the matriarchal Marmee; a compellingly watchable performance that comes into its own during her two solo numbers.
The full cast of eleven are in fine voice, supported by the rich string arrangements of the music. Whilst Jason Howland’s score never takes your breath away, the sumptuous melodies and Mindi Dickstein’s plot driving lyrics add stirring layers to the narrative. A story that is intercut with vignettes from Jo March’s mostly unpublished attempts at writing. We long for everything to work out for these far from little women, we feel the joy when it does, and our senses are tugged when it doesn’t.
The humour and the pathos are captured in equal measure. You want to laugh, and you sometimes want to cry. It doesn’t rock you to the core but on a cold evening as winter fast approaches it will certainly warm you with the glow of its captivating charm.
“Maitland’s vocal control in particular is quite staggering, bringing a coiled strength to the small auditorium.”
Often described as the sequel to ‘Fiddler On the Roof’, ‘Rags’, originally written by Joseph Stein (who did also write ‘Fiddler’) enjoyed only four days on Broadway in its 1987 debut. Regardless, it was nominated for five Tony awards that year. But, more baffling still, it has never been brought back to the stage, that is, until now.
Revised by David Thompson and directed by Bronagh Lagan, ‘Rags’ tells the story of Jewish immigrants making their way to America at the turn of the twentieth century. Among the boatloads of hopefuls is Rebecca (Carolyn Maitland), with her son David (as played by Jude Muir for this performance), who, without any family or a nickel to her name, is determined to succeed in this new promised land.
As with most sequels, ‘Rags’ has loosely the same narrative arc as its predecessor: A community of traditional Jews fights off the outside world on multiple fronts, be it via assimilation, persecution or modernisation. Certain familiar characters re-appear as well. Ben (Oisin Nolan-Power) for example, a nice but nerdy tailor seeks the affections of Bella (Martha Kirby) whose father, Avram (Dave Willetts) disapproves of the union. I mean, why not just call them Motel and Tzeitel and have done with it.
But ‘Rags’ does depart from ‘Fiddler’ in its sheer volume of historical content, including everything from the 1909 Shirtwaist strikes and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to the emergence of feminism, the rising popularity of Yiddish theatre and song writing, and culture clashes, not only between different ethnicities and religions, but also first and second-wave immigrants. In order to include all of this, every character symbolises a school of thought, be it capitalism or communism, traditionalism or modernisation. And this leaves little room for any of the characters to have any, well, character. The older generation – aunt, uncle and father – bring a little Yiddish flavour from the old country, but aside from that everyone is a bit bland.
The soundtrack (Charles Strouse/Stephen Schwartz) flits between a klezmer-ragtime fusion, and modern musical numbers. The former is accompanied by a swaggering Klezmer band wondering the stage, playing various bit-parts as they go. The small ensemble brings a tonne of humour and spirit to the production. Clarinettist Natasha Karp is a particular joy to watch, her constant facial expressions a kind of running commentary on the story’s goings-on.
The more modern numbers, however, are generally forgettable and feel mismatched with the themes of the plot.
The set (Gregor Donnelly), consisting of a wall of suitcases, and sparse furniture, provides an atmosphere of transition; of both hope and hardship. Whilst Rebecca, Bella and David have just arrived, the small apartment has been the home of multiple immigrant families before this one, and will no doubt go on to house many more after, and the set succeeds in keeping this feeling of flux throughout.
The cast themselves are gloriously talented, doing their best to inject colour and excitement to a story that drags on at least a half hour too long. Maitland’s vocal control in particular is quite staggering, bringing a coiled strength to the small auditorium.
But whilst ‘Rags’ was not intended as a direct sequel for ‘Fiddler’, it’s hard not to consider it as such and, as is often the case with sequels, it doesn’t stand up to comparison. Yes, there are a couple of catchy numbers, a couple of funny scenes, and a couple of moments of heartfelt reflection. But not enough on any count, and unfortunately this revival is less a story of rags to riches, and more rags to run-of-the-mill.