Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A conversation with the "little women" of Brelby Theatre Company's LITTLE WOMEN

Mia Passarella, Alexandra Utpadel, Mary Jane McCloskey,
Lydia McCloskey, and April Rideout

(photo: Shelby Maticic)
by Gil Benbrook

If you've ever read the novel Little Women, or seen one of the film or tv adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's book, you know that the four March sisters, the "little women" at the center of the story, are completely different from each other. Yet they all stick together through thick and thin and, along with their loving mother Marmee, form a tight knit family struggling through the ordeal of the Civil War. With their father off serving as a chaplain in the War, Alcott's story follows Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy as they mature into women and deal with tackling social obstacles, finding the joy of romance yet dealing with some setbacks along the way as well.

A lovely, intimate production of the musical adaptation of the beloved book is playing at the Brelby Theatre Company in Glendale through this weekend.  I asked the four actresses who make up the March sisters to sit down and answer some questions about their experiences with the novel, how close they are to the character they portray and why they think this story is so meaningful and memorable to those who have read the book or seen one of the adaptations. Their replies were just as spirited, funny and touching as the characters they portray.

Alexandra Utpadel and Kay Gray
(photo: Fernando Perez)
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Alexandra Utpadel plays "Jo" the character that Alcott based on herself. An aspiring writer and dreamer, Jo's infectious and rambunctious attitude about life is intoxicating and Utpadel is perfect in the part, even though she admits she isn't anything like Jo at all. This is Utpadel's first show at Brelby after appearing at Theater Works earlier this season in I Get a Kick out of Cole and last season in Ragtime.  She was also recently seen in Rapture, Blister, Burn at Theatre Artists Studio.

How familiar were you with Little Women before being cast in this production?

I was pretty familiar with the source material. My mother grew up with the book practically memorized cover to cover. Though I’ve yet to get through the book myself, she was more than willing to provide me with details from the novel. We talked about the setting of the story, character development and relationships, plot – you name it. She was a huge help for me preparation wise.

Have you seen a production of this musical adaptation before?

I have not! This is not, however, my first time being in Little Women: The Musical.  Way back in the longer than I care to think about, say six years ago, I was cast in a youth production as Aunt March. Let’s just say it was a very different experience from the one I’m having now!

Did you do anything special to prepare for the role?

Being in this show is like running a marathon – so I treated it as one. As soon as I received a copy of the music, I got it memorized and started singing it on the treadmill. Half an hour a day I would be walking and singing at the top of my lungs – much to my cats’ chagrin. This got the music in my body and my body kicked into gear to run a musical marathon. I can’t begin to tell you the difference it’s made for my breath support. Jumping around the set is easier now! I also made sure to buy boxes upon boxes of throat coat to keep my vocal cords hydrated.

The March women are very different. Do you think you are similar to your character? If not, which March family member do you think you most resemble and why?

Oh, I am not a Jo person at all! Jo is spunky and determined, filled with a fire, and she is never afraid to say what is on her mind. That… Is not me. I’d say I’m much more of a Beth. She’s quiet and a bit shy, but she is more than willing to make a fool of herself to make her sisters smile. As my mother tells me, she’s also very fond of cats in the book, something to which I can completely and one hundred percent relate.

Why do you think this story resonates with so many people?

In my opinion, what makes Little Women so strong is the characters. They are such a diverse bunch, from the bumbling Professor Bhaer to the sharply elegant Aunt March, from loving Marmee and passionate Jo. They feel like real people. Their hardships and triumphs are easy to empathize with because you know them, and you know what they are going through. We've all had petty feuds with our siblings, felt the sting of rejection, the ecstasy of a new found romance, and unbearable grief. There’s so much life in this story.

What do you hope audience members will take away from seeing this show?

Passion. I hope they recognize the passion within themselves, within this amazing cast and crew who has worked so hard to bring this show to life. I hope that the next time they've got a dream they go after it. Because after all… What would Jo March do?

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April Rideout, Rob Dominguez, Carolyn McBurney and Mat Vansen
(photo: Fernando Perez)
April Rideout is a Brelby company member and has appeared in numerous musicals and plays at Brelby, including Little Shop of Horrors and Angel's Alley as well as the currently running children's show Dotty Dot.  Rideout's portrayal of the romantic, oldest sister Meg, who is mainly interested in finding romance in the musical, is spirited and full of charm, especially when she meets the man who will eventually become her husband.

How familiar were you with Little Women before being cast in this production?

I actually read the book in preparation for the auditions and listened to the cast album many times. I like to think of myself as a voracious reader and I just couldn’t get enough of the novel. It’s a quite a lovely piece of literature that has really endured through the years with new audiences.

Have you seen a production of this musical adaptation before?

I have not seen a production of before. I listened to the Broadway album on repeat before the auditions and watched clips online of other productions. I think that counts on some level. Maybe.

Did you do anything special to prepare for the role?

I was familiar with the story by finishing the book shortly before auditions. That assisted in building my character when we started getting off-book. In rehearsals, I practiced blocking my scenes in a petticoat to get used to the movement required for the period costumes. I also invested in throat coat and zinc lozenges to take care of my voice.

The March women are very different. Do you think you are similar to your character?  If not, which March family member do you think you most resemble and why?

I actually don’t think I relate to Meg as well as I do to Beth. I am shy and quiet behind the scenes. I enjoy the familiar and tend to put the needs of others before my own. I’d rather spend a night at home than be out and about.

Why do you think this story resonates with so many people?

There are timeless themes of romance, family, war, death, and independence that are tied into the story of Little Women. Everyone can relate to at least one of the sisters with their hopes, dreams, and tribulations. The feeling of family is so prominent in the show and those bonds are tested repeatedly. The ability to overcome those hardships and be there for one another can have such a lasting impact.

What do you hope audience members will take away from seeing the show?

A sense of independence and the spirit to pursue your dreams. That it is also perfectly reasonable to go against the grain and forge your own path. That there is a fire within you and you can face all the challenges you are presented with in life.

Mia Passarella, Jaren NavenmaAlexandra Utpadel,
April Rideout and Lydia McCloskey
(photo: Fernando Perez)
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Like Rideout, Mia Passarella is also a Brelby Company member, having appeared last year in She Kills Monsters as well as this season in a hilarious over the top performance in Revenge of the Space Pandas. Passarella is an ASU graduate, with her BA in theatre, and her portrayal of Amy, the youngest March sister, is full of humor and life, especially in how she grows up from a young girl to a mature woman in front of our eyes over the course of the show.

How familiar were you with Little Women before being cast in this production?

I had read the book when I was younger and I had also seen the movie. So I knew the general storyline, but a lot of the details I had forgotten by the time we started rehearsals. It was really great to rediscover the story and characters throughout this process.

Have you seen a production of this musical adaptation before?

I actually have never seen the musical adaption before. Prior to being in the show, I had seen multiple clips online and also heard the cast album, but I've never seen an actual production of it. Part of me is grateful that I hadn't though because it gave me the freedom to interpret the character in my own way without any preconceived notions on how other actors have played her.

Did you do anything special to prepare for the role?

Well, I drank a lot of throat coat. Just kidding. But, in all honesty I did begin by being very conscientious of my voice. I made sure that I was keeping the vocal chords hydrated and ready for extra use. I also began re-familiarizing myself with the story and the music. To prep for portraying someone much younger than myself, I started playing with speaking in a higher register and different physicality until I found something that seemed to just fit,

The March women are very different. Do you think you are similar to your character?  If not, which March family member do you think you most resemble and why?

I feel like I am similar to Amy in certain aspects. I too am a younger sister to a vivacious, spirited young woman and have been through the same feelings of jealousy and longing that Amy does. Also, I am an artist, like Amy. You can often find me with a sketchbook and pencils in my hand. On a whole however, I think I most resemble Jo. She is spunky and loud, and rambunctious, and imaginative. She isn't afraid to speak her mind and has big dreams for her future and for her family. She loves books and knowledge and recklessly seeks opportunities for more. Traits that I personally feel a connection with and that sometimes, like Jo, end up getting the best of me.

Why do you think this story resonates with so many people?

I think that it’s an incredibly relatable show. It’s about independence. It's about striving to achieve your goals and fighting relentlessly to achieve them. It's about growing up and figuring out who you are. And it's about family. About uniting together to face any of life's unexpected trials and tribulations. All of which are themes that I think anyone can identify with.

What do you hope audience members will take away from seeing the show?

Well, first of all, I hope that the audience enjoys it. I hope that they take away a spirit of adventure. I hope that they feel inspired to chase after their dreams and fight to achieve them. And I hope that they go home and hold their family members a little tighter, because you’ll never know how long you’ll be able to.

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Alexandra Utpadel and Lydia McCloskey
(photo: Shelby Maticic)
Just 18, Lydia McCloskey is the youngest actress in the cast and she brings a sheer amount of sweetness and joy to the part of Beth. Like Utpadel, this is her first time appearing in a Brelby show, but not the first time sharing the stage with her mother, Mary Jane McCloskey, who is playing Marmee.

How familiar were you with Little Women before being cast in this production?

 I had never read the book, but I grew up watching the movie with my own sisters! It is very dear to me.

Have you seen a production of this musical adaptation before?

Yes. My mom was Aunt March in Hale Centre Theatre's production of Little Women in 2013.

Did you do anything special to prepare for the role?

I practiced my butt off! Beth has been a dream role of mine since I was 16.

The March women are very different. Do you think you are similar to your character?  If not, which March family member do you think you most resemble and why?

I would call myself a mixture of Beth and Amy. Beth-wise, I'm a little bit introverted, and I LOVE animals! (A character detail included in the book! - read it!) Amy-wise, I enjoy fashion, I love romance, and I am pretty stubborn and ambitious!

Why do you think this story resonates with so many people?

I think it's very a very relateable story, with very relateable characters.

What do you hope audience members will take away from seeing the show?

I hope they leave with a strong desire to call up their mom, dad, sister, brother or something just to say "Hey, I love you!" I hope we conveyed how strong the love between sisters, friends, and family can be.

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Lydia's mother Mary Jane McCloskey is also making her Brelby debut in the role of Marmee. She has appeared in numerous shows at various theatres in the Valley, including just last season playing Carlotta in Phantom at Hale and will be directing Shrek, Jr. for Actor's Youth Theatre in July.

Mary Jane McCloskey, Lydia McCloskey, Alexandra Utpadel, 
April Rideout and Mia Passarella

(photo: Fernando Perez)
Mary Jane, I know you've appeared in shows along with your daughter before but how has this show been different from the others?  and have you learned anything new about yourself or Lydia in working on this show?

Yes, this will be the third show that Lydia and I have been in together.  I hope not the last!  This show has been a bit different than the other two because our characters actually relate to each other on stage in an intimate way.  For myself, I have learned that it really does not matter if I am related to the actress I am in a scene with because I am not me at that point.  I am the character I am creating and my fellow actor, related or not,  is also the character they have created.  I never think of Lydia as "Lydia" in our scenes, she is "Beth" and I love and relate to her as "Marmee."  I have learned that Lydia is a wonderful, sensitive actress in her own right and that we can have a professional relationship at the theatre, she is just like any other actor I work with, except for the extra backrubs and food runs!!!

For more information on Little Women at the Brelby Theatre Company, that runs through May 23rd, click here

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