The past three decades haven’t been kind to community-based musical theater. Every few years, another venerable company collapses. The Los Angeles Civic Light Opera closed in 1987 after 50 seasons; the Long Beach CLO was 47 years old when it took a final bow in 1996; and Downey’s CLO lasted for 58 years before shuffling offstage in 2013. Musical Theater West, at the age of 66, is the notable survivor, rising from its roots in Whittier and La Habra before settling in Long Beach’s Carpenter Performing Arts Center in 1997.
“God, I miss the Long Beach Civic Light Opera,” says Mark Wheeler, who worked with that company early in his theatrical career.
Nodding in agreement is Megan O’Toole, who began acting as a 6-year-old with the LBCLO and the Long Beach Playhouse. “I loved LBCLO,” she says. “It was so nurturing, so full of joy.”
And that’s what Wheeler and O’Toole are going for now, with their toddler-age Landmark Theatre Company which is bringing its sixth major musical production, “Little Women—the Broadway Musical” to the stately and elegant stage in the sanctuary of the First Congregational Church of Long Beach for a six-performance run from Nov. 9 to 18.
“Long Beach Civic Light Opera is our inspiration in running this company,” says Wheeler, Landmark’s executive director. “You do it right and you end up creating a community of extraordinarily talented people.”
A newcomer in the musical theater arena, Landmark Theatre Company jumped into the game with a one-off production, a sprawling epic called “Postcards from Paradise: A Love Letter to Long Beach.” The 2014 production boasted a cast of 50, a choir and an eight-piece orchestra. It was put together to celebrate First Congregational’s 100th anniversary through a musical that told the intertwining histories of the church and the city.
Wheeler put that production together with Curtis Heard, the choir director at Wilson High School, and, whether or not the church would be on board, the establishment of a permanent musical theater based on community involvement was already on Wheeler’s mind.
O’Toole, the company’s artistic director, agrees with the community concept. “It was important to us to create a company that nurtures and supports its talent.”
For Landmark, “Little Women” is a relatively small production with a cast of 12 and a 12-piece orchestra conducted by musical director Heard. Of the 12 people in the cast, five are from the church’s congregation and have been in past Landmark fall productions which have included “Titanic the Musical,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Closer Than Ever.”
Local musical theater actors are hungry for roles, says Wheeler, noting that the casting call for “Little Women” drew more than 100 auditioners for the 12 roles, especially the major roles of the four March sisters.
“There were several very strong contenders. We could have cast the sisters three times over,” he says.
Earning the role of Jo is Laurel Bollard, a musical theater major at Cal State Fullerton; Natalie Gissel, a senior at Millikan High School, scored the role as the young and tragic Beth; Meg is played by Mackenzie Hamilton, who recently played the part of Cosette in “Les Miserables” at the Warner Grand; and Amy is Sara Cooper, a graduate of the Classical Music Program at Irvine Valley College.
In terms of longevity, “Little Women” has nothing but legs. The two books that make up the story have been in print since they first came off the presses in the late 1860s.
It was given the silent-film treatment in 1917 and 1918 and a half-dozen talkie versions were made between 1933 and 2018, with another one coming out next year. It’s been serialized on TV five times by the BBC from 1950 through 2017, when it was produced by PBS as part of its “Masterpiece” series. It’s been an opera and it’s been done twice in Japan as anime.
Landmark is staging the play in the Broadway style. The musical debuted in New York in 2005 and enjoyed a 137-performance stretch.
The endurance of “Little Women,” says O’Toole, can be credited to the fact that it’s remained relevant to the women’s movement from the post-Civil War era to the present. “Being a woman in this place and at this place isn’t too much different than what Jo’s experience was in 1863,” she says.
“There’s a song in the play called ‘Astonishing,’ where Jo sings, I’ll shout and start a riot; I’ll be anything but quiet.
“It’s all about empowerment,” says O’Toole.
The church does not interfere much in Landmark’s productions: “You know how liberal the church is,” says Wheeler. “The simply ask that there is some sort of social justice message involved. It’s not about f-bombs.”
Physically, the church’s sanctuary is spectacular and, at the same time, warm. Though it can hold 1,000 people, the producers limit the audience to 400 people for each performance.
“The acoustics are awesome,” says O’Toole. “Though it did present some challenges, but now we have audio geeks from Musical Theater West helping us, and the sound is great now.”
From the very beginning, Wheeler says, “we had a master plan to continue what we started with ‘Postcards.’ We had this across-the-board pool of talent—actors, musicians, costumers, lighting and stage people. It just seemed wrong to have all this talent and not use it.”
“Little Women — the Broadway Musical” performances run Friday through Sunday from Nov. 9 through Nov. 18. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $50. First Congregational Church is at 241 Cedar Ave., Long Beach.
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