PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Little Women: Art Direction by Mother Nature

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Little Women: Art Direction by Mother Nature
 
Is there a tavern in the town that wears winter's wonderland better than Tavern on the Green? One had to ask Jan. 23 as hordes of betuxed and begowned first-nighters plowed through the white stuff up to Central Park to celebrate the snow-capped premiere of Little Women.
Sutton Foster; Alan Knee; Jason Howland; Maureen McGovern; Amy McAlexander; Jenny Powers; Megan McGinnis; Danny Gurwin; Jant Carroll; Marc Kudisch; Jim Dale; Jeanine Tesori & Michael Rafter; Ruben Santiago Hudson; Rachel York; Tovah Feldshuh; Bethany Joy
Sutton Foster; Alan Knee; Jason Howland; Maureen McGovern; Amy McAlexander; Jenny Powers; Megan McGinnis; Danny Gurwin; Jant Carroll; Marc Kudisch; Jim Dale; Jeanine Tesori & Michael Rafter; Ruben Santiago Hudson; Rachel York; Tovah Feldshuh; Bethany Joy Photo by Aubrey Reuben

How Randall L. Wreghitt, lead producer of the show, and his armada of associates (Dani Davis, Ken Gentry, Chase Mishkin, Worldwide Entertainment, Ruben Brache, Lisa Vioni, Jana Robbins, Addiss Duke Associates, John and Danita Thomas, Thomas Keegan, Scott Freiman and Theatre Previews at Duke) arranged it, I'll never know—I never ask, I just enjoy—but the gorgeously glistening, constantly twinkling post-play setting seemed magically in sync with the bulk of the show's first act, which takes place in the winter of discontent for four Concord damsels and their mother, who keep the homefires burning after the man of the house has marched off to the Civil War.

Thanks to a formal-attire edict from the moneybags above, this was easily the best-looking Broadway assemblage of '05, if not the best-looking since the tuxedo-mandatory Tony to-do last June. Against all that seasonal garnishing and the traditional firefly lighting, everybody in attendance was beautiful. Even the orchestra—a jazz trio—was beautiful.

It has to be said, however, that Sutton Foster was much the queen bee of the evening, arriving in a stunning Armani ("I can actually say a designer and be okay about it," she giggled), riding the waves of praise she was getting from all sides for her multi-layered bravura work as Jo March, the spunky second-born, a wanna-be writer and stand-in for Louisa May Alcott, who lightly fictionalized her own girlhood in her classic novel.

Allan Knee, who wrote the book-heavy adaptation around 18 songs by composer Jason Howland and lyricist Mindi Dickstein, admitted his job was made much easier when Foster entered the project. "Once she came into the show," he said, "you could begin to write somewhat modified, because you know your talent and she can handle anything."

Director Susan H. Schulman said a hearty amen to that. "She's a dream to work with, so courageous, so willing to risk. I felt there was a great collaboration going on between us." Foster herself was appreciative of the part. "It's an amazing journey every night," she said. "I'm playing a character who grows into a woman. How often do you get a role like that? I feel just so blessed and lucky. It's the role of a lifetime, and I brought a lot of who I am to this part. I guess it's inevitable when you're part of creating something like this. I completely identify with Jo—absolutely!—more than any other character I've ever played."

She did a little big-screen research into previous Jo Marches—Katharine Hepburn in 1933, June Allyson in 1949 and Winona Ryder in 1994. Her favorite—surprise, surprise!—was Allyson. "I really respected all three performances, but there was something about her movie in particular where I really saw a musical in it, something about it I really loved."

Foster is already building a fan base with her work. Tennis champ Alexandra Stevenson, whom producer Marty Bell, a friend (you'd think manager), identified as "a Wimbleton semi-finalist who wants to be in musical theatre when she grows up," had the typical response: "Sutton captured the character perfectly. I liked how she was so theatrical and comical and dramatic—all in one. I think I'd like to do something like that."

Maureen McGovern, the Titian-haired cabaret star, is marvelously at home as the matriarch of the brood, Marmee, a consistently comforting presence throughout. "I love her strength, her humor, her compassion—all those wonderful things," she admitted. "You see bits and pieces of Marmee in the girls, too. I think it's a strong cast, and we all work off each other so easily and so well." Amy McAlexander as Amy, Jenny Powers as Meg and Megan McGinnis as Beth complete the sisterhood—and half the cast. "There are only ten actors, but everybody gets their strong moments," said McGovern. "It's a beautiful way to tell a story." Director Schulman has shrewdly and slyly double-cast what she's got, giving the illusion of a thick cast. (McGovern even chips in a cameo of "The Hag.")

This is McGovern's first time back on Broadway since the 1989 Threepenny Opera revival headlining Sting—but not that you may have noticed. "I ruptured a blood vessel on my right vocal chord a week before we opened, missed 21 shows and got back in for the last ten days before it closed. It was Georgia Brown's last show, it was [director] John Dexter's last. I missed that opening night altogether. That's why this is so meaningful."

In Little Women, Laurie happens to be the boy next door, sweating with swain potential for Jo till the first kiss and first act, eventually setting his sights in the second act on Amy.

"It's interesting," said director Schulman, "that a woman, at that period in time, feels betrayed when someone asks her to marry. I think it's because she felt she had shared her innermost feelings with him and he didn't get it. Being a man of his time, he still didn't understand what she was saying—and she didn't understand she could possibly have both things because they were opposite to each other. If you were a career person and got married, you had no career. She could never see the two things coming together. We always knew we'd stop the first act when she made a decision to leave home. It was the most emotional moment up until then because she never thought it would ever happen."

The likable Laurie in question, Danny Gurwin, said the part was pretty much in place last summer when the show tried out in Durham, NC. "It started out well and hasn't changed much. I've actually been lucky in terms of changes, and I think the character has actually grown a bit. It's so wonderfully written I'm honored to be a part of this project."

John Hickok, who succeeds Gurwin in the affections of Jo as the bashful Professor Bhaer, was breathing the sign of relief of one who has reached his Broadway beachhead. "We had a blast tonight," he confessed. "We were actually playing a lot on stage with each other tonight. There was a lot of fun new stuff, and everybody was just enjoying what they were doing. The audience was so responsive. It was like floating on a cloud."

(Hickok has one of two Rossano Brazzi roles being musicalized on Broadway this season. Brazzi quietly courted Allyson in the 1949 remake (his first Hollywood effort). The other role is the father of the groom whom Mark Harelik will play in Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas's The Light in the Piazza, which will bow April 18 at the Vivian Beaumont.)

Janet Carroll, who plays the sisters' vinegary, poker-hard Aunt March, permits a little Edna May Oliver to creep into her characterization. (Oliver set the standard for this part back in '33 and, indeed, parlayed that starchy persona into a lucrative screen career.)

"Actually, I drew on my grandmother, my mother and the great teachers I've had. In this role, I'm representing everything that went before me, and I'm hopefully honoring Louisa May Alcott's dream. They said, 'We want you to be a vital force of life, the backbone of the family, a true Concord, MA figurehead.' That was the goal I was going for, anyway."

The chanteuse among the producers, Jana Robbins, looks as if she could step in at a moment's notice for McGovern. "That was the advantage I had as a producer. I was also an actress. For all my backers' auditions, that's what I did: I sang all of Maureen's songs. And that's how I raised a lot of money for the show. But I'm not attached to this show in any way as an actress. Maureen had the flu for seven performances, and several people called me and said, 'So, Jana, are you going on?' I said, 'I'm not the understudy.'

"As an actress right now, I have a Mercedes commercial running, and I'm still doing my cabaret shows, Gypsy in My Soul, and my Cy Coleman show, Hell of a Ride. But I don't know as an actress what my next theatre job is. I'm just happy to be producing."

It is not, kindly note, her first time at the rodeo. "It's just my first time to produce this visably, and it's certainly my first time to produce on Broadway. I started producing close to 15 years ago—while I was still doing Gypsy—doing some small Off-Broadway shows with Eric Krebs. Then I formed my own company, Better World Productions."

Little Women was supposed to be Knee's second Broadway show this season, but the funding for his nonmusical Syncopation fell through at the last moment. Now, he said, the project is twittering to life again. "Hartford Stage wants to do it now in the fall or spring—I'm hope they're going for the fall—with as many people who were going to be in the New York production as we can get. We going to call Neve Campbell to see if she'd still be interested and, hopefully, Michael Hayden, and possibly John O'Connell, who did Strictly Ballroom, as a choreographer. John Tillinger directing, and so on."

The most pressing question Knee leaves unanswered in Little Women is "Where's Poppa?" but that's why God created poetic license. "He does come back from the Civil War in the novel, but, in truth and reality, the father came back and left immediately to be come an itinerant preacher. He's a shadowy figure in the book. In real life, Bronson Alcott was a total idealist who constantly lost his money and was in a state of poverty. He used to go out on the road, and he'd come back with ten cents in his pocket. All the girls would greet him at the door, stop for a second when they realized he'd made no money and then give him a hug. There was an article on him in The New Yorker recently."

A pretty young thing seen in The Boy From Oz arrived at Tavern on the arm of Dracula/Scarlet Pimpernel composer Frank Wildhorn, who was asked what movie he was working on—meaning what movie is he musicalizing now—but gave a straighter than expected answer: Jekyll & Hyde: The Movie, to be produced by Richard Zanuck.

"My next musical," he added, shifting gears and careers back to the stage, "is Scott & Zelda," the well-known sad story of the Fitzgeralds which somehow has escaped Hollywood's focus so far. "It opens July 16 in Marlton, NJ. It's our first big dance show."

Wildhorn smiled, ducked and ran when asked if he (like six other different composers) was planning a musical on Bonnie & Clyde. Hunter Foster, Sutton's brother, is one. Donna Murphy and husband Sean Elliott, both friends of director Schulman, arrived from filmmaking in different parts of world—he from Santa Domingo where he shot The Feast of the Goat with Isabella Rossellini and Eileen Atkins; she from Montreal where she co-starred with her recent professional neighbor on 45th Street, Hugh Jackman, and Ellen Burstyn in the Darren (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) Aronson film, The Fountain.

Stage-wise, Murphy plans to ease herself back into the saddle this year with "some concert work, hopefully a cabaret thing and a lot of Stephen Sondheim tributes this spring." (Sondheim turns 75 on March 22.) Elliott said there's "talk of a L.A. production of Senor Discretion Himself, then rolling it into New York after that." (This was the posthumous Frank Loesser musical he starred in last summer at D.C.'s Arena Stage.)

Marc Kudisch, for some unknown reason, made a mad dash through the press area and announced, cameras turning, that he was "the lost sister." Then he altered his story and professed to have played The Angel of Death, who'd "just followed Beth around a lot wherever she went." In reality, he's readying to start Chitty Chitty Bang Bang rehearsals in two weeks (he's the villainous Baron). Until then, he will be very much the man around the house, the house being the weekend retreat he and his girlfriend, Shannon Lewis (Ursula in the upcoming Sweet Charity), got about an hour outside of the city. Jim Dale, the Tony-winning Barnum and producer Miskin's escort for the evening, said that what he was working on at the moment was "training a Doberman puppy called Georgy Girl, which I just acquired. She is a hound from Hell. She is now tearing up my apartment. Everything goes in her mouth. Luckily, it comes out the other end, which includes a half dozen one-cent coins. I don't know where she got them. My career is on hold till I've trained this dog to differentiate between what's good for her and what isn't."

Among other marrieds at the theatre and Tavern were Julie Halston and radio's Ralph Howard; she just walked across 52nd Street from her Hairspray matinee to pay a neighborly opening-night visit to Little Women. Also, actors Ron and Lynn Cohen. She has done tons of theatre work but seems to be forever doomed to be identified "Magda," Cynthia Nixon's maid on "Sex and the City." She was not the only Lynn Cohen in attendance: Lynne Cohen, one of the reeds in the Little Women orchestra, showed up with her husband, Constantine Kitsopoulos, who conducted La Boheme on Broadway. And Sweet Charity arranger Michael Rafter was present with wife Jeanine Tesori, who composed Caroline, Or Change and Foster's Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Other opening-night guests included Tony winner Ruben Santiago Hudson (with son), who will skip Tuesday and Wednesday performances of Gem of the Ocean to accompany his HBO film, Lackawana Blues, to Sundance; Richard Kind of The Producers; Julia Murney, who has one more week of Arrangements ay the Atlantic before her Feb. 7 date at Birdland and Feb. 14 rehearsal start for Lennon; Jim Caruso, who booked her for Birdland "Cast Party" as well as Christine Ebersole; Dessa Rose-bound Rachel York; Broadway on Ice skater Oksana Baiul; "Guiding Light" villains Crystal Hunt and Tom Pelphrey; radio's Micky Dolenz, who inherited the Aida villain from Hickok; Zoe Caldwell and sons, Charlie Whitehead (now with New York Stage and Theatre) and Sam Whitehead (a splendid erstwhile critic of theatre for Time-Out, who zroomed off into another direction and now writes/edits for a motorcycle magazine); Saturday Night Fever's Orfeh; Tony-nominated Tovah Feldshuh, who'll open Golda's Balcony Feb. 2 in Los Angeles; Bethany Joy Lenz of TV's "One Tree Hill"; and Matthew Morrison, once of Hairspray.

Not all the celebrities made it to the Tavern bash. Quick to check out was Rosie O'Donnell and Kelli Carpenter. "We're not too much partygoers," Carpenter explained at intermission in the Virginia lobby, which was made pretty frosty by the parade of smokers going out and coming back from the street. "We have to get up early because we have a house full of kids—four, from nine to two. But we've been trapped in the house for two days by the snow so we were happy to get out of the house and come in from Nyack."

Also calling it an early evening was Marian Seldes because she had to host the Theatre Hall of Fame for producer Terry Hodge Taylor the next day. I told her I had recently run into someone who was writing a play for her. "Who's writing a play for me, my darling?' she inquired with an actressy restraint. I told her Tina Howe, who has done well with Seldes before (Painting Churches). "I'm all ready," Seldes declared. "I don't care what she writes. I think she is so wonderful. She mentioned this to me, and I was hoping you were going to say Tina. I get a lot of plays in the mail that say they're written for me, and I turn to the first page, and the first page says, 'A nursing home.'" Not for you, my darling, not for you.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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