OREM — Braving the theater these days can be daunting, and Orem Hale Center Theater was no picnic; however, I had put a drop of cinnamon oil in my mask to help improve the experience,which was a good distraction and fit well with Little Women and the Christmas festivities. This production had some great actors, touching scenes, and a beautiful set. Unfortunately, I wasn’t too happy with the show as a whole, due to the poor character arcs and some unusual and distracting blocking.
The set design, by Cole McClure, was minimalistic and effective. The center had windows come down from the rafters and had a chair or two that could be changed each scene. I liked how the grand piano was built into the floor and how it rose up for the necessary scenes. The attic looked cramped and strewn with old items, fitting the scenes where they were looking for costumes amongst the boxes.
This musical is based off the book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, one of the first novels with a strong feminist protagonist. This story is the story of the four March sisters, with Jo March, played by Scout Smith, as their ringleader. Smith did a fantastic job at the beginning, coming in with a powerful personality and energy. I especially loved her song, “Better,” where Jo angrily lashes out at Professor Bhaer (George Banner) for insulting her writing; she had a perfect attitude of indignation. I also enjoyed Smith’s duet with Banner near the end, and appreciated the camaraderie her character expressed with his character, showing the change that had come over her. I didn’t see as much of her dynamic strength during the middle, especially for, “Astonishing;” I fully expected Smith to nail the song, but it sounded more like a recital than an experience. I didn’t really see the true character of Jo during that scene, which made me sad.
Director David Morgan could have contributed to the overall feel of the show that hindered good actors from performing as well as they could. From the beginning I was annoyed by little things that didn’t quite work. At first I thought having Jo’s story characters be ridiculous and over-the-top was a fun choice, though it seemed the show was making fun of Jo’s writing. However, when at the end, the story characters were still ridiculous, it enhanced the message that Jo, as a girl, wrote silly stories that weren’t worth reading, even though this musical is all about how women bring value and skill to society. However, my viewpoint seemed to be unique, because most people clapped and laughed at how silly the characters were. Another choice I didn’t understand was when Laurie (Tanner Gardner) yells, “patch on her dress,” out to the dance floor, meaning to start a trend, but it ended up sounding more like he was making fun of Jo to the whole room.
There were some good choices, too. In that same scene, I enjoyed the choice Morgan made to have the two spit on their hands to shake on their new friendship. The scene where Jo writes the Professor a letter and she speaks it aloud as he reads aloud was a neat effect. I liked the change in Mr. Laurence (Daniel Hess) when he first meets Beth (Amber Dodge), but the humongous pause inserted right before, “which one of the dreadful little March girls are you?” was unnecessary and almost creepy. I also thought Beth should have been led back to her wheelchair at the beach instead of led offstage away from it, because she’s such an invalid. While there were good directing choices, the directing still had some issues that I just could not ignore, though usually my experiences at Hale Orem are wonderful.
Banner as Professor Bhaer was amazing. I loved his accent, his attitude and mannerisms, and his big smile at the end when he falls in love. Banner as Professor Bhaer had realistically funny reactions to Jo, like when he comes to visit her spontaneously and then immediately asks if he should go, pulling his hands into his chest like a tiny mouse about to escape. His voice was also a refreshing joy to hear, especially during his solo performance, and he and Smith sounded wonderful together.
Odine Gardner and Tanner Gardner, playing Amy March and Laurie, and married in real life, had some growing to do throughout this show. I enjoyed much of Odine Gardner’s acting, like during her fight with Jo, and when she played the Troll. Tanner Gardner had a great look for Laurie, and I enjoyed his enthusiasm but found his voice wasn’t always on key, especially when he was harmonizing, which for the Hale seems strange. Odine Gardner had some opportunities she missed, like when her character exclaims that someone at school said her nose was flat, Odine Gardner as Amy didn’t do any movement or look in the mirror or try to perk it up or anything, which seemed rote. Tanner Gardner’s shirt came undone during the ballroom scene with Jo, which he didn’t fix before going back out to the ballroom. Not fixing the shirt seemed strange, but perhaps he was following blocking orders to dance back into the room and didn’t have time to fix his shirt. However, I would expect an actor to improvise for moments like that. A moment of improvisation in the show was Odine Gardner’s ad-lib, “I’m so clumsy,” when she accidentally dropped a shoe and had to retrieve it and race out the door in time to run into Mr. Laurence (as per blocking). The improve mostly made sense, because she was trying to catch up to Jo, but I also wondered if she was going to go stocking foot in the snow the second she exited the door. Not every improvisation works, but at least the audience can appreciate the actor’s commitment to living in the moment.
Many of the girls had wigs, which enhanced the story, and Bekah Wilbur was over the hair and makeup design. I appreciated the long luxurious locks for Smith’s character, Jo, though I was confused why she didn’t have more wigs to show her hair growing. It stayed the same length between when she cut it and months later when Laurie proposed to her. It also stayed the same length between when she was in New York and when her sister had a baby (at least 9 months of hair growth not shown) and when her other sister got married (more months). Dennis Wright designed the costumes, and I absolutely loved the final dress Smith wore, with the embroidery on the chest and back and the various hues of maroon.
Though many actors were skilled, I was surprised to see some that struggled to present a realistic story. I wondered if they were just audience-starved actors, and perhaps after this first show they could now settle into their characters. The singing was often hard to listen to, and some of the best, powerful notes by Smith were drowned out by the accompaniment, which needed to be softer. I wish the characters had been less flat and more honest so that this story could be more engaging to watch. To really feel this musical, it takes true emotions from actors presenting the work and is a heart-wrenching show as written. Also, it didn’t help that the show lasted three hours and that it was getting difficult to breathe through my mask.
I love Little Women so much. With some directing work and one-on-one acting coaching, I’m sure this production could get up to the usual Orem Hale standards. I am sad to have not enjoyed this show as much as I’d like. There are still plenty of reasons to go see it, and hopefully the experience will better than mine. Sadly, I must relate what I saw, and it wasn’t the best.