pop-break witnesses a New Jersey school for young performing artists put on a strong rendition of the Broadway musical …
Here’s a challenge: Put on a musical, with full costumes, makeup, dance numbers, and realistic sets. Your cast is a dozen or so teenage actors. Your rehearsal time is only a few weeks. And your source material is a 19th century novel that most remember from their summer-reading lists.
It isn’t easy.
But that was part of the joy in watching the Allegra School of Performing Arts put on a recent three-show run of Little Women: The Broadway Musical.
Allegra does this every summer. The central New Jersey school takes a group of ambitious young actors, directors, musicians and crew members and gives them a test: Stage an elaborate show in a month or so. This year, it was Little Women, a pleasant but not particularly well-known adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel about four sisters coming of age in Civil War-era New England.
Like any smaller-scale show, Allegra’s production had its flaws. Not every young actor sparkled with stage presence. And not every singer or every musician hit every single note. But even with a short window of preparation, Allegra’s cast and crew never made the production feel amateur. Quite the opposite actually.
Musically, Allegra added something it usually doesn’t feature in its shows: a full orchestra. A group of young musicians played every note live — under the direction of conductor Thomas Pepitone and with the accompaniment of pianist Florence Simons.
The show was put on at the 99-seat Somerset Valley Playhouse in Hillsborough, N.J., which isn’t equipped with a pit in front of the stage. Thus, the musicians were behind the set — and sometimes, that made the music feel distant. But having an actual orchestra — and not a recorded score — made the music seem more alive and more authentic. Pepitone’s arrangements were bright and robust — especially on the musical’s showstopper, a 10-minute play-within-the-play called ‘The Weekly Volcano Press.’ Simons’ playing was lovely — especially during playful interludes during set changes. And the fact that both helped organize and lead a group of teenage musicians through an entire Broadway score was impressive.
Also commendable was the work of vocal director Katie Gornick. On the surface, Little Women‘s songs don’t sound incredibly daunting. But they’re deceiving — full of winding melodies and sudden notes that need to be belted. Aside from a few garbled harmonies, Gornick’s crew handled it well. The play’s leads — Laura Couch as eldest sister Jo, and Phillip Barrood turning in a dual role as Joe’s love interests, Professor Baher and Laurie Laurance — had exceptional command of their voices. Aubrey Malakoff — who played mother Marmee March — stole scenes with her gorgeously lilting vocals. The actors also displayed something critical but often not seen at this level of theater: that singing in a musical isn’t just about singing, it’s about acting while you sing. Gornick’s vocalists never forgot a gesture or facial expression while reaching for their notes.
As for the set? Without a Broadway budget, Allegra can’t afford to recreate elaborate drapes that may have hung in an 1800s home or to craft an ice skating rink for a crucial scene. Instead, the sets made creative use of minimalism. One focal point was a couch at the side of the stage. It’s where the March sister sat together, listening to Jo tell stories. It’s where they daydreamed about how to dance at an upcoming ball. It’s where they consoled each other when one of the girls succumbed to illness. Because the audience was forced to focus on it at so many key points in the play, the couch gave extra resonance to the sisters’ bond.
One thing the production didn’t skimp on: costumes and makeup. The girls wore flowing Victorian dressed and the boys vintage grey suits. And the teenage actors donned white powder in their hair to age themselves 50 years.
The production also had solid lighting and sound, thanks to technical director Dan Schulze. He made a local New Jersey theater feel like an off-Broadway playhouse. It all came off professionally.
Above all, though, the show was held together by the direction of Nicky Singer, a Hillsborough native and playwright making her directorial debut. When you think of Little Women, you don’t exactly think of a lively romp through human emotions. Some might think of a stuffy, slightly outdated tale — and a Broadway play with pretty tunes but a thin story. But Singer — a Rider University student — made the story pop. She found humor hidden in the dialogue, having characters tell jokes at unexpected moments. The light-heartedness paid off. When the tear-jerking scenes arrive in Act II, they’re all the more heart-wrenching and gut-punching because the audience has come to see the characters as three-dimensional humans, able to both laugh and cry.
Another sign of Singer’s talent: She guided inexperienced actors to performances that seemed well beyond their years. Maturity is a tough thing to coax from teenage performers, but few of these young men and women were staid or nervous on stage. And despite the small amount of prep time, Singer was also able to throw in some clever additions to the show. Like in the musical’s closing number — a love song called ‘Small Umbrella In The Rain.’ Instead of the titular umbrella serving simply as a metaphor for finding a soul mate who will protect you, the director gave the actors an actual umbrella to pass back and forth in meaningful ways, adding depth to a key part of the plot.
And most notably, Singer found a smart way to keep the audience engaged as the crew changed sets between scenes. Instead of having the crowd stare at a curtain, the director added little vignettes that set up the next sequence. For example, before a scene featuring characters returning from a ball, a few actors presented a mini-scene from the ball while Simons played a fun little piano piece. It kept the production moving, and also added something fresh to the play. It’ll be interesting to see what Singer can do with a show she wrote herself and a production schedule longer than a month.
Next year, Allegra will return with Urinetown, a risk-taking modern musical about a town where you have to pay to pee. It’ll be a drastic change of pace from Little Women. But if Allegra could make something so animated out of Little Women, it’s exciting to think what they’ll do with a show about urination.