BWW Review: Valerie Joyce Breathes Life Into LITTLE WOMEN at Villanova
LITTLE WOMEN, by Louisa May Alcott, is now lumped in the "girls' classics" notion of reading. When it was released in 1868, it was, however, an international bestseller about a family of women - the father absent during the war, and with no immediate male relatives - and how the siblings made their way into adulthood and navigated their lives and loves. It was, in fact, and still is, an intensely feminist story, embracing the idea of women and work, of women and writing, of women and thought; it dares to question how women might feel about marriage in a way that novels of the past century frequently have failed to do. Our foremothers in American literature had more guts and more political insight than do many contemporary women novelists.
Knowing that, and also that the story is now part of our cultural consciousness, playwright Mindi Dickstein created the book for the Broadway version of LITTLE WOMEN, with music and lyrics by Jason Howland and Allan Knee. Chopping many of the fascinating byways of the full story out, out of necessity, the musical focuses on the novel's protagonist, Jo March, and how the development of Jo and her three equally formidable sisters plays out in their life choices and marriage decisions. Unfortunately, while the novel is long, the fascinating byways omitted from the musical make up the bulk of character development and identification with the sisters and their mother, which leaves the show lacking in real heart and real audience connection that can't be made up with the songs. The show works, therefore, only as much as the cast and director do - and under Valerie Joyce's casting and direction at Villanova Theatre, the production on offer is as good as it gets.
Laura Barron's Jo March and Lexi Schreiber's Margaret "Marmee" March (the sisters' mother) are delightful, Barron as tomboyish as a reader might picture from the novel, as well as possessed of a solid voice, while Schreiber is not only appropriately maternal but a singer to be reckoned with. Chris Monaco as family friend Laurie Laurence is also well-cast and entirely plausible as a young man with his own "March madness."
Joyce's direction brings out elements of the show often missed in most productions. Jo's truly individual quirkiness, Amy's (Jaclyn Siegel) moving from youngest-child pettiness to understanding of herself, Beth's (Allyce Morrissey) comprehensions that she is going to die and that she is prepared to do it, and Meg's (Kara Krichman) real interest in being a wife and mother are palpable, which adds some flesh to the otherwise bare-boned story line. Additionally, in this production, Jo's growing relationship with the older, more "sensible" Professor Bhaer (Dan Cullen) can be seen as influenced in stage production, rather than in the original novel, as related in theatre lore to that of Eliza Doolittle with Professor Henry Higgins in MY FAIR LADY. Bhauer, in New York, "a sane and peaceful man," teaches Jo German (rather than her native tongue) and patience, his manners molding hers far more surely than any of the efforts made by Aunt March (Galen Blanzaco).
Well worth appreciating are all of the numbers in which Jo tells the Gothic blood and guts story she has written, including "An Operatic Tragedy" and "The Weekly Volcano Press." Additionally, "Astonishing," Jo's close to the first act, and "The Fire Within Me," her eleven o'clock number, are riveting solos. So I Marmee's "Days of Plenty," so beautifully rendered by Schreiber as to be a serious reason to see this production on its own. Enjoy Bhauer's "How Am I" as the "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" of LITTLE WOMEN, and return once more to "The Weekly Volcano Press," one of the most amusing pieces of all-but-steampunk staging in theatre as well as one of the most energetic.
While even the presence of Sutton Foster and Maureen McGovern didn't help LITTLE WOMEN remain on Broadway for long, it's far more an Off-Broadway show in relative size and scope, and far better than many of the Off-Broadway vehicles for mostly-female casts. It's rarely done full justice; we may be thankful that Villanova has given Valerie Joyce free range to make it work.
At Villanova Theatre through April 9; visit villanova.edu for tickets and information.