pop-break visits with the dedicated young members of a New Jersey theater troupe, putting on a new version of the Broadway musical based on the classic novel …
Zoë Epstein is fully aware there are other ways she could spend the last few weeks of summer vacation.
Many of her fellow 17-year-olds are off on family vacations or playing lazy pickup soccer games in the park. But Epstein and about a dozen other teenagers have spent eight hours a day, five days a week inside a New Jersey theater, learning lines, practicing dance moves, memorizing songs and being fitted for Civil War-era costumes.
And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
This isn’t a ramshackle summer theater camp. This is a full-scale production of Little Women: The Broadway Musical, put on by the young cast and crew of the Allegra School of Performing Arts in Hillsborough, N.J. Their four-show run opens this weekend at the Somerset Valley Playhouse.
“I feel like we’re living and breathing this show,” says Epstein, a high schooler from nearby Montgomery, N.J. “Everyone is really involved.”
This is Allegra’s mission. The school was founded in 1999 by New York City native Donnetta Bishop-Johnson — a woman who didn’t start her career in the arts. She got her degree in math and science.
But she also acted in college and harbored a love for the arts. After a job with AT&T that took her to the sprawling Central Jersey suburbs — a web of farmland and strip malls about an hour from Broadway — she soon had a different goal.
“This is a great community with so much talent,” Bishop-Johnson explains. “I was interested in creating another outlet for the arts here. A place where kids can study music and theater in their community. I wanted to add a voice.”
So she left her steady job in telecommunications and created Allegra.
“It was crazy,” she admits. “But at some point, people need to do what makes their heart beat.”
Allegra welcomes all kinds of teens — from those looking to take music classes to those dipping their toes in drama to those who want to make a living on a stage. Epstein’s first class at the school was learning how to sing pop songs using proper technique. But she had also acted in a few school plays and wanted to learn more about theater.
Allegra gave her the one-on-one training she was looking for. Now, Epstein is playing a key role in Little Women — as Meg March, one of the four sisters at the heart of the musical. She’s doing full dance routines for the first time, too.
“It’s going pretty well,” Epstein says, smiling.
Maryellen Molnar is more of a theatrical veteran. The 15-year-old, also from Montgomery, grew up putting on plays and skits with her cousins — using family living rooms as a stage. She hopes one day to make a career out of acting.
In Little Women, she plays Aunt March, a society woman who tries to teach her nieces to act like ladies. It’s a role that taught her a new talent: dramatic verbal sparring.
“There’s lots of confrontation in the role,” she says, grinning. “It’s fun to argue with people on stage.”
Those behind the scenes are getting experience, too. Little Women is anchored by a crew of teens and twentysomethings who direct, arrange music, run lights and sound, and design costumes. Plus, this is the first time an Allegra production will come equipped with young volunteers filling out a live pit orchestra.
As for the play itself? Bishop-Johnson said it was the chance to put on a classic.
It’s based on the 1869 novel by Louisa May Alcott that has become a staple of summer reading lists. The plot focuses on four sisters — Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth — and their adventures and struggles growing up. Jo is a tomboy that yearns to be a writer. Meg is a romantic. Amy dreams of high society. Beth is an adorable piano student braving a serious illness.
In 1994, the book became an Oscar-nominated movie. In 2005, it became a Tony-winning musical — with a book by Allan Knee, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and music by Jason Howland.
Allegra’s version — directed by Rider University theater student Nicky Singer — stays true to the Broadway version, complete with period clothing and sets, fully choreographed danced sequences, and robust musical numbers.
“There are some real challenges for the kids,” Bishop-Johnson says. “It’s a very good ensemble piece. And the music is spectacular.”
Molnar whole-heartedly agrees.
“It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry,” the young actress says. “There are lots of different emotions. And you can relate to at least one of the characters, even though it’s not in the same time period.”
The Allegra School of Music and Arts Presents
Little Women: The Musical
Friday, Aug. 17, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 18, 1:00 p.m. (understudy performance) and 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 19, 2:00 p.m.
Somerset Valley Playhouse
689 Amwell Road
Hillsborough, NJ 08844
Tickets are $10, but tickets are limited to 99 seats per performance. Order tickets here.
Laura Couch as Jo March
Phillip Barrood as Professor Bhaer and Laurie Laurence
Aubrey Malakoff as Marmee March and the Hag
Zoë Epstein as Meg March and Clarissa understudy
Sarah Kulick as Amy March and Troll understudy
Isabel Nappa as Beth March and Chorus of Hag
Brian Stiroh as John Brooke and Braxton Pendergast
Kyle Gornick as Mr. Laurence and Knight
Maryellen Molnar as Aunt March and Mrs. Kirk
Lauren Bahr as Rodrigo
Meghna Datar as Clarissa and Meg understudy
Micaela Applegate as Troll and Amy understudy
Nicky Singer, Director
Katie Gornick, Vocal Director and Sound Designer
Donnetta Bishop-Johnson, Producer
Thomas Pepitone, Instrumental Director and Pit Conductor
Dan Schulze, Technical Director
Flo Simons, Piano Accompanist
Elizabeth Valenti, Stage Manager
Dan Pino, Assistant Stage Manager
Christina Kinney, House Manager
Lauren Brandt, Costumes
Liz Gonzalez, Hair and Make-up
Tim Taffuri, Curtain