Book: Alan Knee
Lyrics: Mindi Dickstein
Music: Jason Howland
Director: Bronagh Lagan
Reviewer: Richard Hall
In less than two years, Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre has become a byword for high quality, accessible, musical theatre. At the heart of the venue’s runaway success are its owners Joseph Houston and Willian Whelton. The dynamic duo has deservedly received widespread acclaim for the extraordinary contribution that they have made to theatre in Manchester and musicals in general.
The pair’s latest offering, the fifth show that they have staged with co-producer Katy Lipson and Aria Entertainment is the European premiere of the American cult musical, Little Women. Although the show enjoyed some success on Broadway, it is through the popularity of the cast recording that it is has become best known and where it has obtained a large and enthusiastic fan base. Little Women, based on Louisa May Alcott’s, well known and much loved semi-autobiographical novel follows the four March sisters, Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy as they grow up during the American Civil War and their journey from adolescence into womanhood.
For Little Women, the producers have assembled at Hope Mill another first-rate cast, one of the finest that this reviewer has seen in any musical. In particular, the quartet of young performers who make up the March sisters are impeccable, each performance is wonderfully authentic, perfectly drawn and completely believable. In this hugely enjoyable production directed with great sensitivity and skill by Bronagh Lagan, the siblings effortlessly step out of Alcott’s classic novel to share their stories of heartache, hope, and joy with bundles of wit and spoonful’s of charm. When tragedy strikes the sisters realise more than anything the importance of family and the value of kinship.
The production brilliantly evokes New England in the mid-nineteenth century, at the heart of the set is a pair of large screens which suggest the natural beauty of the New England landscape and when opened, magically reveal the rooms in the family home where the sisters revel in Jo’s story making and confide to each other their innermost secrets.
As Jo, an aspiring writer and the most impetuous of the sisters, Amie Giselle-Ward gives an astonishing and what surely must be a career-defining performance. She holds the stage throughout, orchestrates with ease and grace the movement of the other characters around her and portrays a dazzling array of emotions. Her singing is exquisite and extraordinarily moving and will no doubt adorn many West End musicals in years to come. The rest of the cast, especially those playing the other March sisters and in particular Cathy Read as the ill-fated Beth, give outstanding support. Anna Stolli as Mrs. March and Connor Hughes as Laurie, Jo’s would be suitor are worthy of special mention for their hugely impressive musicality and striking vocal performances. A small unseen band comprising of a piano and string quartet provide perfect accompaniment and fill the Hope Mill Theatre with a marvellously rich, lush and vibrant sound.
This is a warm-hearted musical, sprinkled with liberal doses of passion and the exuberance of youth. All genuine fans of musical theatre and especially those who have listened to and enjoyed the original cast recording should beat a path as soon as they can to Hope Mill Theatre. Performed for the first time outside of America and Australia, Little Women is a real gem of a musical and on the strength of this excellent production will surely be produced in other theatres very soon.
Runs until Saturday 9 December | Image: Antony Robling