“Christopher Columbus!” One Off Productions’ Little Women the Musical

Christopher Columbus! Can you hear that beautiful noise coming from the eastern edge of Washtenaw County? Listen carefully. Something really magical is happening in a small jewel box of a theater on the campus of Washtenaw Community College. One Off Productions – I love that name! – is presenting Little Women, the Broadway musical none of us remember but all of us should.

I had heard of the show; I knew Sutton Foster and Maureen McGovern, of all people, were in the original run; and I believe I had heard a song or two. Obviously, the forward-thinking novel by Louisa May Alcott, depicting the inner and outer lives of the four plucky March sisters – adventuresome Jo, fiery Amy, stately Meg, and dear-hearted Beth – and their noble mother Marmee as they survive and thrive in New England in the midst of the Civil War is emblazoned in our collective cultural subconscious. However, I had never had a chance to see this musical, originally produced in New York in 2005. And that’s a shame. Grateful, however, that One Off has brought this beautiful, sophisticated score and delicately nuanced adaptation for the enjoyment of Southeastern Michigan audiences.

Lieto and Mills

As iconic Jo, Sarah Mills, wearing many other production hats including director and producer, affects a thoughtful and poised narrative arc from earnest kid to battle-tested author, never maudlin, always heartfelt, and at times delightfully comedic. I attended last night’s final dress rehearsal (which as expected had its share of 11th hour technical distractions), so it would be interesting to see how she settles into the role, adding nuance as the run proceeds.

Mills is also a gifted vocalist, as is the entirety of this remarkable cast. Her act one closer “Astonishing” is exactly that. Hearing such strong, classically trained voices in such a small and intimate space, delivering what is, in essence, a light operatic score is a treat.

Gagnon, Case, and Mitchell

Wendy Cave is spot on in the role of Amy, by turns heartbreaking and maddening in her character’s impulses but always compelling. As Meg, Morgan Gagnon is lovely and gracious with just the right touch of playfulness to offset the show’s heavier moments. In the pivotal role of Beth, upon whom hangs the story’s tragic narrative impetus, Mills’ real-life sister Rebecca Timmons is a quiet storm. She is at her strongest one on one with the other characters in the show and her final interactions with Mills are appropriately devastating. She also is a gifted comedic actor, and her timid, bewildered, and bemused take on the rather odd number “Off to Massachusetts” is a hoot.

Elizabeth Mitchell as the sum and center of the March family universe – Marmee – offers a poignant but refreshingly lighthearted take on the role. She has a remarkable and distinctive singing voice, with the acting chops to accentuate that innate talent. Her solo moments of reflection on stage as a mother trying to keep the fraying threads of her family woven together are a gut punch. And as the toxic id to Marmee’s earth mother superego, Julia Fertel is haughty fun as snooty Aunt March.

As for the men – Jon-Luke Martin, Michael Cuschieri, Bradley Lieto, and J. Michael Morgan – all have great fun in their dual roles as boyfriends and husbands and neighbors … and the occasional pirate or river troll. (Note: there are a few fantasy sequences where aspiring writer Jo’s inner fantasy life takes center stage.) All of the men seem to be having the time of their lives on stage, Lieto most especially (and what a voice!) as overeager neighbor boy Laurie. It is clear that this is an ensemble that appreciates, respects, and enjoys one another, which translates beautifully onstage.

Lieto and Mills

The musical accompaniment is divine, leaning into chamber music, with just a piano, viola, and cello. What conductor/pianist/music director Rebecca Biber is able to accomplish in the small space with her talented team (Elizabeth Marsh, Robin Bloomberg, Phoebe Gelzer-Govatos, Meghan Rhoades – performing on different nights) is remarkable. It is a lush and orchestral sound, yet simultaneously intimate and haunting

Orchestra

The set design by Wilm Pierson is simple yet sophisticated and quite impressive. Lighting cues differentiate the scenes, all of which take place in the backdrop of the family attic. Items that would normally be found in an attic double as scene props (by Jamie Sonderman, prop master) – a trunk here a toy piano or rag doll there – and the actors make great use of the space overall. It is a testament to the design and the direction as the set seems much more extensive than it really is. Costumes by Emily Betz are period-perfect, and long-time sound designer Kelvin Elvidge makes effective use of mics in the small space. Seasoned theatre vet Rebecca Winder rallies the team as the production’s stage manager.

Ensemble

You may feel like you have seen Little Women far too many times in your life: classic movie, film remakes, television productions, or stage plays. One Off’s production of Little Women is truly special, however, as it is clearly a labor of love for all involved with a clear message of inclusion, compassion, and empowerment. Do not miss it.

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Produced nationally and internationally, Little Women has been praised by critics for its ambition in adapting such a well-known story for the stage. This timeless, captivating story is brought to life in this glorious musical filled with personal discovery, heartache, hope and everlasting love.

Ensemble

Based on Louisa May Alcott’s life, Little Women follows the adventures of sisters, Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March. Jo is trying to sell her stories for publication, but the publishers are not interested – her friend, Professor Bhaer, tells her that she has to do better and write more from herself. Begrudgingly taking this advice, Jo weaves the story of herself and her sisters and their experience growing up in Civil War America.

Little Women embodies the complete theatrical experience, guaranteeing a night filled with laughter, tears and a lifting of the spirit. The powerful score soars with the sounds of personal discovery, heartache and hope – the sounds of a young America finding its voice.

8pm Shows July 25th-27th & August 1st-3rd

2pm Shows on July 28th & August 4th

Tickets here: https://www.oneofftheatre.com/

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Ensemble

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Sometimes I don’t want to let it go.” Idina Menzel at Detroit’s Fox Theatre – PLUS, my mom Susie Duncan Sexton on Patty’s Page tv show

No Day But Today

“No Day But Today”

For a bit of time now, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Idina Menzel, she of the soaring vocals that are such a shot of adrenaline in beloved (overrated?) musicals like Rent and Wicked. The first time I saw her perform Wicked‘s signature tune “Defying Gravity” on the Tony Awards (10+ years ago), I got chills and my eyes welled up from the underdog-makes-good vitriol in her delivery. She was the best thing – the much-needed battery acid – in Chris Columbus’ misguided candy-coated film version of Rent. Her sporadic appearances on Glee – as the brilliantly cast mother of All About (Baby) Eve Rachel Berry (Lea Michelle) – were spiky, oddball fun, notably their peculiar duet of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”

However, “Let It Go” (the ubiquitous ditty from Disney’s Frozen) seemed like an underwritten redux of “Defying Gravity” (not her fault of course), and the whole “Adele Dazeem” debacle just got more cloying and unfunny with each passing day (again not her issue … exactly). And the “brand” of Menzel – not unlike that of Wicked co-star Kristin Chenoweth or, for that matter, Audra McDonald or the queen mother of kewpie doll divas Bernadette Peters – suffers from a “gee, aren’t I darling” humblebrag self-absorption and a disingenuous projection of “how did I get here?!” humility that belies the ragingly talented, driven loon lurking underneath.

“Don’t Rain On My Parade”

Blessedly, Menzel’s show last night at Detroit’s Fox Theatre (more or less) stripped away that glossy artifice and laid bare the broken soul with the big voice. It was a revelation.

In her between-song patter, Menzel offered a rambling treatise on her befuddlingly amazing 18-month ride, with epic highs like the runaway success of Frozen and performing on the Oscars and devastating lows like her divorce from Taye Diggs (whom she never mentioned by name). Lest you think she was milking all of this life experience in some kind of self-serving “Oprah” confessional, that was not the vibe at all. Her chatter was too loopy, too heartfelt, too, well, lost to be anything but that of a desperate soul searching for an anchor in a swirling moment of intense success and loss.

“River”

She channeled this personal crisis into a fascinatingly raw (and dare I say schizophrenic) array of song choices. Yes, the favorites were all present: “Defying Gravity,” “The Wizard and I,” “For Good” (for which she dropped the mic and used the Fox Theatre’s legendary acoustics to chilling effect), all from Wicked; “Take Me or Leave Me” (which she used as an opportunity to winningly share the stage with many hyperventilating Idina-groupies in the audience) and “No Day But Today” from Rent; and, of course, show-closing “Let It Go,” again sharing the mic with all the wannabe “Elsa”s in the audience (weirdly/delightfully interpolating the song with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ funky classic “Give It Away”?!?!).

The Wicked tunes especially seemed to get a perfunctory, hastened treatment, as if Menzel is as tired of them as we are. She seemed anxious to get to the caustic musical nuggets at the heart of her show, gleefully dropping many f-bombs along the way, hoisting a middle finger to the Disney empire (and all the blue-dressed dollies) that allowed her to mount such an extensive summer tour in the first place. That’s my kind of diva (and I hate that word).

“Defying Gravity”

She delivered expected Broadway bon-bons like Funny Girl‘s “Don’t Rain on my Parade” and an Ethel Merman tribute medley (Annie Get Your GunGypsy) with powerhouse vocals and a salty element of sad understanding, as if trying to say, “We women have been treated like crap forever, no matter how talented we are. Knock it off!”

The deepest heartache was telegraphed during a one-two punch of the crystalline elegance of Joni Mitchell’s “River” and what could only be described as a “hooker medley” of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and The Police’s “Roxanne.” Both numbers were electrifying, eliciting a hushed awe from the audience. “River” with its repeated chorus of “I wish I had a river I could skate away on” seemed to serve as Menzel’s central thesis. In her introductory remarks to “Love for Sale/Roxanne,” she mentioned a fearsome theatre professor who excoriated her about her performance of the Porter tune, challenging “Do you even know what that song is about?!?!” She wanted us to know – especially juxtaposed with her earlier performance of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” – that, yes, Mr. Man, she does know that the song is about. It was sheer theatrical brilliance.

Fox Theatre

Fox Theatre

She performed a number of original works, none of which alas quite held up to the other material, but the punk rock passion with which she delivered the tunes revealed an alternate reality where Idina might have been another Alanis, instead of a wannabe Barbra. She offered If/Then‘s 11 o’clock number of “Always Starting Over” as a fiery yawp over the Sisyphean nature of daily living. Her take on Radiohead’s 90s classic “Creep” was a dizzyingly effective blend of Broadway bombast and grunge existentialism. I would love to have that performance on a permanent loop in my head.

John and Roy

John and Roy

At one point in the show, Menzel joked that, while she’s appreciative of her recent success, “sometimes I just don’t want to let it go.” Some days she just wants to stay in her bed and let the world run its course while she tries to figure out which end is up. Her candor and her authenticity were much appreciated, and, along with her prodigious use of the f-word, just the eye-opening experience all those baby Elsa princesses in the audience needed to hear. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.

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BONUS! Enjoy part 1 of my mom Susie Duncan Sexton‘s two-part interview with delightful Patty Hunter on her Patty’s Page TV program. Also in the house are journalist and advocate Terry Doran and my dad Don Sexton. It’s a free-wheeling and fun discussion of politics, small-town living, animal rights (and, yes, pig wrestling), writing, and other insights and adventures. Enjoy! Click here to view.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.