Little Women

By Philip Pearce

PLAYWRIGHT ALLAN KNEE has joined composer Jason Howland and lyricist Mindi Dickstein to turn Little Women into a full-scale musical that sticks pretty close to events in Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century novel but serves them up with a 21st century attitude. Western Stage’s new production on the Hartnell College campus does justice to the concept, and the result is two hours in familiar territory but with some delightful surprises.   

Don Dally’s twelve-piece orchestra had scarcely breezed through half a dozen fast and sassy measures of the opening night overture before I sensed this was not going to be a sentimental journey down Memory Lane. 

And once the stage lights came up we weren’t gathered around the cozy hearth of the March family parlor in Concord, Massachusetts. We were in a clattering New York boarding house where grown-up Jo March is collecting rejection slips in her struggle to become a writer of popular fiction and bickering with a fellow resident named Professor Fritz Bhaer. 

We soon shift back in time to the March’s Civil War-time home, and, sure enough, here are the familiar four—Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy—still dreaming of big things to come and waiting for their father to return from chaplain duty in the Civil War. That said, they aren’t much like the skittish and wistful quartets we watched in those 20th century movie versions. These girls act more like free spirited New England proto-feminists.

Bookish, determined, explosive Jo sets the tone and Claire Moorer plays her as a whirling, cock-sure, adolescent wonder. Moorer has an energy and focus that never flag but she knows how to ring the changes so the role is never monotonously strident or lacking in pathos. She has a clear and forceful voice that perfectly serves the tone and meaning of her songs but leaves the lyrical soprano warmth to Katie Wheeler’s lovely Beth, who is, after all, the family musician. Also, inevitably, remembered as The Shy One Who Dies. But Wheeler’s performance and Knee’s script, along with Lorenzo Aragon’s astute direction, make it clear that Beth’s shyness only kicks in when strangers arrive. So when her beloved sisters raucously welcome neighbor Laurie Laurence into the March family (“Five Forever”) Beth is as raucous as the rest. When she stops being scared by Laurie’s gruff grandpa (a huffy but appealingly vulnerable David Norum) their relationship is sealed as side by side they sit at the piano singing not some tender-hearted Victorian ballad but a jaunty music hall favorite called “Off to Massachusetts.” As her death approaches, this Beth helps Jo prepare for the coming loss in an effective scene on a New England beach that never sinks into bathos.  

Heather Osteraa is a graceful and subtly comic Meg, sufficiently aware of her own beauty to worry about how she can enhance it by what she’ll wear and how she’ll behave at a neighborhood dance. When her advance ballroom strategy is settled, the family join in a hilarious rehearsal for the coming festivities in a song called “Delighted.” Once at the actual ball, Meg falls for young Laurie’s starchy but smitten tutor John Brooke, pleasantly sung and acted by Eric Wishnie.

Laurie is usually played as a lean and lonely boy-next-door, nursing a bad cold and cowed by his overbearing grandfather and browbeaten by his tutor.   Western Stage artfully exploits Josh Kaiser’s form and style to produce a Laurie who seldom mopes but bounces around with the mischievous charm of a roly-poly New England schoolboy. It’s a delightful innovation, though it possibly works better in Laurie’s early hi jinks with Jo than in his later maturity as the bridegroom of youngest March sister Amy.

I have to admit I found the choices director Aragon and costume designer Jaymee Ngernwichit made in introducing Amy too far over the top for comfort or believability. Performing with appropriate adolescent hauteur, Maya Mendoza first struggles against layers of over-fancy partygirl lace petticoat and a pair of gigantic hair ribbons that explode from her head like the ears of a startled puppy. It’s worse later when she bursts onto the scene in an ill-fitting borrowed ball gown heavily encrusted with sequins and covered with bows and tucks and gussets. It’s funny but unbelievable that the attic of a low-paid New England clergyman would ever contain or that Jacqui Hope’s wise and level-headed Marmee would ever have worn such a chandelier of tacky vulgarity. So it’s a relief when Mendoza’s grown-up Amy stops looking like a vaudeville comic and becomes a human being.

Jo’s adult mentors are Jaqui Hope’s brave and sensible Marmee and Donna Federico, who does wonders as that rigid guardian of social correctness in Concord, Aunt March. She gives the role a welcome dose of pretentious charm and re-appears as the frantic Irish manager of Jo’s rented digs in New York. 

The play’s central question is when and how Jo will put aside the highly charged, predictable romantic material she tries to peddle to New York publishers and produce something real and true to life. Knee’s script excitingly exploits the pretentious bombast in “Operatic Melodrama” Jo writes, first for a Christmas party back home in Concord, then as a submission to unresponsive New York publishers. As she narrates her romantic tale, first to her sisters, later to Professor Bhaer, the cast and ensemble take on the costumes and exaggerated attitudes of characters in a funny but beautiful send-up of overblown 19th century theatrics. 

In the more restrained and realistic musical moment, Jason Howland’s tunes and Mindi Dickstein’s lyrics won’t set you to whistling your way home, but they serve the important function of providing clear insights into what the singers are feeling and thinking. Each of the three surviving March girls has a pleasing duet with the man she has linked up with by the time the show ends. Early on, Meg and John sing “More Than I Am” as they look at his enlistment in the Union Army. Laurie and Amy describe their surprise at falling in love while off on the Grand Tour of Europe in “The Most Amazing Thing.” Jo, of course, ends up with the reflective and confused German refugee Professor Bhaer, played with sympathy and conviction and a nice tenor voice by Kyle Richlin.  The two of them, to my pleasure and surprise, end the pairings with the nicest duet of all, “Small Umbrella in the Rain,” as funny as it is touching and believable. 

Little Women, the Broadway Musical, is wonderful, intelligent family entertainment and continues on the main stage at Hartnell through July 13th.

Photo by Richard Green