Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Little Women
Valley Youth Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of In the Heights

Kendra Richards, Sara Pansing, Tatum Dial,
Stephanie Larson, and Lily Castle

Photo Courtesy of Valley Youth Theatre
With over 50 theatre companies in the Phoenix area, and hundreds of productions happening each year, the amount of passion and dedication to this art form at all levels here never ceases to amaze me. But perhaps the one area that most impresses me is in the volume of talent in our youth theatres. For over twenty years Bobb Cooper has been nurturing and guiding youth of all ages at Valley Youth Theatre, and their production of the musical adaptation of Little Women is a thrilling, emotional journey which features some of the best and brightest youth talent in town. The success of this production is not just a testament to Cooper's keen directorial and casting decisions but also to the dedication and talent of the production's young cast.

While Louisa May Alcott's classic 1869 semi-autobiographical novel has been adapted for films and TV, it wasn't until 2004 when it was turned into a Broadway musical. While that production didn't last long, running only four months, the story at the center of Alcott's beloved work focuses on a strong, determined family with four young sisters who band together through thick and thin, which makes it a perfect musical to showcase the talents of this teenage cast.

Like Alcott's book, the musical focuses on the March family who live in Concord, Massachusetts. With their father away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War, mother Marmee raises her four daughters alone, and the engaging plot follows all four girls, who have very different personalities, over numerous years as they grow up and become women. Together, all four "little women" face social obstacles and experience moments of happiness that include dealing with the ups and downs of romance, but they also have to deal with some sadness as well. Alcott based the siblings on herself and her three sisters, with the main character of Jo, an aspiring writer, modeled closely on Alcott.

Allan Knee's book for the musical is fast paced and, while he isn't obviously able to include every detail from the novel, it is a faithful adaptation that also makes a few small faithful changes to the famous story. The score has lyrics by Mindi Dickstein and music by Jason Howland, and while not every song is memorable, it features a mix of musical styles which include some upbeat ensemble numbers and several moving and rousing ballads for Jo.

Director Cooper does well to ensure that the intimate details of the story and the connection and bond that the sisters have toward each other come through incredibly clear. Most of the talent involved have worked together in the past, at both VYT and other youth theatres in town, and the connection, faith and trust they have with each other mirror the relationships of the characters they are playing. There isn't a weak link in this cast.

With a singing voice that soars and a perfectly feisty and fierce persona, Lily Castle is simply superb as Jo. She instills both a deep sense of urgency and a high level of energy into this caring, passionate young woman. Her voice has a perfect combination of clarity and control that makes every one of her rich with beauty and meaning. As Marmee, Tatum Dial evokes a clear sense of strength, care and compassion, even when she has to scold her daughters, and her rich voice brings out the emotion in her solos, especially her act two "Days of Plenty."

Sarah Pansing, Stephanie Larson, and Kendra Richards play Jo's three sisters and they all do a very good job portraying these very different young women. Pansing strikes the right tone as the sensitive Beth, while Larson is perfectly level headed as older sister Meg. Richards plays Amy, the youngest sister who is jealous of Jo, and her dramatic and humorous line delivery work well for this precocious youngster as does her ability to show the changes Amy makes over the course of the show. Vincent Pugliese is goofy, nervous, sweet and charming as Laurie, the boy next door who falls for Jo; Steven Enriquez is full of warmth, but also an amount of hesitance, as the Professor who befriends Jo when she moves to New York City but doesn't quite know how to interact with her; and Hayden Skaggs is very good as the man who falls for Jo's sister Meg. Emma Sucato and Riley Thornton do lovely work as two older characters in the story, the girl's overbearing and judgmental Aunt, and the grandfather to Laurie, respectively.

While Dori Brown's detailed set is fairly static, it works very well to portray the various locations of the story, including the main floor and attic of the March home, and the boardinghouse where Jo lives in New York. Karol Cooper's beautiful and vibrant period costumes are exceptional and Bret Reese's lighting design not only helps evoke the various times of day in the plot but also to focus our attention. Tom Holberg's sound design is fairly good, though on opening night there were a few brief sound issues with the microphones, and the sound balance occasionally had the cast somewhat overpowered by the orchestra. Tristan Peterson-Steinert's music direction of the cast and the exceptional 17-piece band is spotless.

Alcott's novel is an incredibly well known coming of age story and, even though this musical adaptation sticks fairly close to the plot of the original book, and the score only has a few standout tunes, it still makes for a joyous and uplifting experience. With a gifted cast and beautiful creative elements, Valley Youth Theatre's production is a moving and emotional story full of the joys and heartbreak that these young women experience that will have you laughing and probably shedding a few tears while in awe of the talents of this young cast.

Little Women, through April 22nd, 2018, at Valley Youth Theatre, 525 North First Street in downtown Phoenix AZ. Ticket and performance information can be found at or by calling 602 253-8188.

Director: Bobb Cooper
Music Director: Tristan Peterson-Steinert
Scenic Designer: Dori Brown
Costume Designer: Karol Cooper
Lighting Designer: Bret Reese
Sound Design: Tom Holberg
Production Stage Manager: Joycelin Jacobs

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Troll: Abby Cardenas
Braxton: Dominic Cardenas
Rodrigo 2: Grace Carlson
Jo: Lily Castle
Clarissa: Isabella Conner
Marmee: Tatum Dial
Prof. Bhaer: Steven Enriquez
Mrs. Kirk: Haley Hanni
Meg: Stephanie Larson
Knight: Ethan Maxwell
Beth: Sarah Pansing
Laurie: Vincent Pugliese
Amy: Kendra Richards
Rodrigo: Charlie Siegel
John Brooke: Hayden Skaggs
Aunt March: Emma Sucato
Mr. Laurence: Riley Thornton
Hag: Allison Watson