On a Wednesday afternoon, the Marian Theatre audience for “Little Women” included several busloads of students from area schools, from elementary through junior high age. When asked whether this was the first live theater show they had seen, a number of kids raised their hands.
This musical production of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel is a good introduction to musical theater, with a handsome, innovative set, a talented cast with fine singing voices, period costumes, and a story about the loving family of Jo, a girl who refuses to be forced into a mold and instead follows her inner passion.
The expectations for women during the Civil War era were a far cry from those of today. At that time, Jo was a rebel because she wanted to write and achieve on her own instead of marrying and becoming part of a man’s life.
When she goes to New York to try to sell her stories she is told to “Go home and have babies. That’s what women are made for.” Fortunately, this attitude is outdated, but it offers a lesson in social history, and the story is still relevant today as a reminder that a person can be strong and independent while resisting peer pressure.
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The story, long and more complex in the novel, has been distilled down to its principle events. It chronicles the coming of age of the March sisters, Jo, Beth, Amy and Meg, as Marmee, their mother, copes at home while her husband is on the front. In the book, the character of each sister is well developed, but in this play by Allan Knee, the focus is on Jo, the alter ego of author Louisa May Alcott.
The first scene takes place in a New York boarding house where Jo receives a rejection notice for one of her stories, her 22nd such notice. Her friend Professor Bhaer looks on as she begins to read her “blood and guts” story to him and it comes to life onstage with a damsel in distress and a sword fight.
The next scene flashes back to the beginning of Jo’s journey several years earlier at the March home, where she spent hours writing in the attic. The rotating two-story set is functional and elegant, with the March living room at stage level and the attic upstairs. It rotates to become the boarding house, the fancy home of the girls’ Aunt March, and a Cape Cod beach. DeAnne
Kennedy is scenic designer.
In this second scene the sisters’ personalities become apparent as Meg (excited) and Jo (reluctant) prepare to attend a ball. Meg is a romantic, and at the ball she will meet Mr. Brooke, the man she will marry. Jo will also meet a man, Laurie, who will become her good friend. Amy, the youngest sister, is jealous and angry because she was not invited to the ball, and Beth sweetly watches the preparations.
Karin Hendricks is just right as Jo, garnering both sympathy and laughter as she asserts her strong personality. The audience, especially the kids, obviously loved her. Elizabeth Stuart is excellent as Marmee, supportive of all of her girls while torn between their actions and interactions and concern for her absent, at one point ailing, husband.
Sarah Girard is charming as the domestically inclined Meg, and Renee Wylder is sweet as the ultimately tragic Beth. Brittney Monroe is cute and lively as the feisty Amy. The girls’ Aunt March, a haughty curmudgeon, is played with comic undertones by Anna Romero.
The men in the sisters’ lives are well acted and sung. Scott Fuss, as Jo’s friend Laurie, is likable and fun, and he has a great voice. Andrew Philpot is outstanding as one of the more complex characters, Professor Bhaer, as he sings two of the best songs in the show. J.R. Yancher is good as Meg’s Mr. Brooke, and Michael Tremblay goes from grumpy to kindly as the neighbor Mr. Laurence.
There are 20-some songs in the show, but they are not tuneful, and there are only a few memorable melodies. Instead, the lyrics by Mindi Dickstein drive the play as extensions of the dialogue. They are wordy, serving as conversations or expressions of inner emotions. Because they are like narration or poetry it’s important to not only hear them, but to clearly understand each word.
The score by Jason Howland is generic Broadway, with strings for the quiet moments and brass for the dramatics. Although the voices in the cast are all fine, strong and amplified, the loud orchestration in the brassy passages sometimes obscures the lyrics.
Roger DeLaurier directs the production. Callum Morris is musical director, and Michael Jenkinson is choreographer.
The action takes on another comic dimension when Jo’s melodramatic short stories come to life, with threatened heroines, heroic knights, even a witch and a troll.
This is a colorful family show, G-rated and suitable for pre-teens and up. It’s too long for younger children, but a good opportunity for parents and older kids to enjoy some fine performances together.