Saturday, November 10, 2012

Little Women, Big Voices

(reflection on a performance of LITTLE WOMEN, a musical.  Book by Allan Knee, Music by Jason Howland, Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Production at The Walker School, Marietta, GA, directed by Mrs. Katie Arjona.  I saw the show at its opening, November 1, 2012.  Pictured:  Alex Catlin as "Jo" and Eleni Demestihas as "Aunt March," a screen cap from YouTube.)

More than the story, more than the songs, it's the sound of LITTLE WOMEN that has stayed with me since I saw it opening night.

As "Jo," the ambitious and loving eldest sister, senior Alex Catlin warmed the room with a pure, golden tone.  Whether she was singing all the parts in an imagined "operatic tragedy," mock-Donizetti in a duet with overbearing "Aunt March" (played by Eleni Demestihas, whose Broadway contralto voice brings to mind Kaye Ballard), or Jo's personal declaration of independence and ambition, "Astounding," Miss Catlin's voice was a supple instrument that expressed her character's thoughts.   (I heard her in a preview performance when a technical glitch prevented the orchestra from playing the first few bars -- and Alex was poised and pitch-perfect singing the part, as if it had been written a cappella)

The director, Mrs. Katie Arjona, chose this show because, in her words, "This year, we have the girls who have the pipes for it."   How right she was!   Each of the other leading women had distinctive sounds that reflected their characters.

Georgie Wilkins as frail "Beth" sang with a silvery sweet sound, affecting in "Some Things Are Meant To Be" about leaving life young, and delightful in a pastiche parlor duet, "Off to Massachusetts." Seated at a piano with elderly Mr. Laurence (Alex LaDue),  they began their relationship with that song -- we never see them together again -- but just their harmonizing generates a sense of mutual affection.   That's the magic of musical theatre!

As the mother, Rachel Novak responded to a letter from the absent father in the song "Here Alone" with a mature sound and quiet passion, more feeling than the absent patriarch deserves.  Younger sisters Meg and Amy (Shannon Keegan and Liane Houde), possessing strong voices with wide ranges, blended with the other women in a quartet early in the show that cast a glow over the whole evening.  The audience knew, even if the story turned out to be a bit thin, the evening would be beautiful.

Credit goes to vocal director Samantha Walker, who coached these young voices since September, teaching them technique to support the sound and to smooth out the highs and lows.   Individually, the men blended well with the powerful-voiced women in their characters' lives.  Senior McLain McKinney played the role of young Mr. Laurence (a.k.a. "Laurie"), a mostly comical juvenile role.  McKinney projected exuberance, whether he was dancing (and boxing!) to attract "Jo's" attention, or standing still to receive her scorn.   Junior Matt Zibanejadrad played "Professor Baer" with a strong voice and a slight German accent, generating sympathy for this stodgy character in his solo "How Am I," a self-disgusted response to Jo's question in a letter, "How are you?"  The youngest singer in the bunch, freshman David Simpson, sang a vocally demanding duet with Shannon Keegan, "More Than I Am," and the two of them sang this rangy ballad with more self-assurance than we would expect, and made us believe that their relationship was going to grow and last.

When the whole ensemble sang together, as in "The Weekly Volcano Press," counter-melodies intertwining and voices blending in rich harmony, they generated a wonderful sound. 

In the school's production, all of this was made clear with staging by director Mrs. Katie Arjona on a vast two-tiered set by designer Mr.  Bill Schreiner.  The set efficiently suggested a number of different Victorian homes merely by re-positioning a staircase, a bookcase, and some furniture.  

Heard but unseen, the orchestra supported the cast's luscious voices and brought different colors -- solo strings and sunny brass -- to the mix.  Mr. Todd Motter conducted the orchestra and also cued the singers via closed-circuit video monitors concealed in the "footlights" of the stage.

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