BWW Review: Charming LITTLE WOMEN: THE MUSICAL At Ocean State Theatre Company
The story of the March sisters has been charming people since the novel Little Women was first published in 1868. To date there have been six film adaptations, four television series, a full-length state play as well as a one act, and a stage musical. This production is the Broadway musical version, which was initially performed in 2005. While strong acting and excellent vocal performances make this a treat to watch, there are a few hiccups that unfortunately detract somewhat from what is an obviously classic story.
Little Women is the story of the March sisters growing up in Concord, MA in the 1860's. Jo, the protagonist is the writer of the family and eventually over the course of the story ends up writing about her and her sisters Beth, Amy and Meg. All of the parts of the March girls were perfectly cast in this production. Abigail McMahon perfectly captures Amy's bratty impetuousness (she is the youngest, after all); Alison Novelli is lovestruck Meg and Bryn Martin radiates love and kindness as sweet Beth.
The undisputed star of this show is Tess Jonas as Jo, who perfectly captures Jo's intelligence, dry wit and the frustration that comes with growing up and not getting what you want easily. Jonas' comic timing is really what makes this production. This reviewer has seen multiple movie and stage versions of this story, but I don't think I've ever laughed out loud as many times as I did at this production. Jones has this deadpan delivery that just pulls the laughter out of you almost involuntarily, but in a way that is just delightful. Little Women really isn't a comedy, and the moments of humor are more just little aspects of life that you would laugh at naturally, rather than jokes, but playing up those moments of brevity makes the more touching moments that much more affecting.
The only real drawbacks to this production are the visual aspects--costumes and set design. The costumes are period appropriate--ankle length dresses in muted tones with hoop skirts. Unfortunately though, the size of the hoops in the skirts seemed to get in the way of the actor's movements and became a distraction as they constantly had to adjust their clothes in order to do anything. Contrasting the period clothes was a set that was completely spare and minimalist.
Clifton Chadick, who has previously created quite elaborate sets for OSTC productions, gave us what was basically an adult-sized shadow box with a set of stairs, and a white scrim across the back of the stage that's illuminated with different colored lights depending on the plot and mood. Since this is a show set in multiple places, the idea of a creating a set that's not super place specific makes perfect sense, but what they opted for instead was a set that was so dramatically different from the costumes that the contrast between the two was just distracting. Added to that, the set was a gigantic immovable object that left the actors with very little stage to use. In one scene, Jo and her Aunt March share a song and because the set takes up so much of the stage, Jo has her back to the audience downstage, with Aunt March upstage.
The fact that this is a musical doesn't really add much. Many of the songs by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickerstein are forgettable, though there are a couple standouts-- one in each act. Aside from the obvious delight one gets from listening to talented people sing, it's somewhat difficult to understand why this was made into a musical in the first place since so much of plot is sacrificed in favor of middling songs. That said, Jonas's singing voice is as spectacular as her acting performance, and it's just great to spend an evening with her no matter what she's doing. Michael Luongo as Laurie also shines in his songs and frequently steals the scenes he is in. He perfectly captures Laurie's earnestness and adoration of the March sisters, and just seems like a neighbor you'd love to be friends with.
Overall this is a great show with a couple issues, but still one that is well worth seeing. Frustrations in this case probably feel amplified because there is so much potential that seems like it was somewhat underutilized, but fans of the book will still find much to love in the fine performances and familiar story. It's also worth noting the satisfaction that comes with watching a story of strong, determined women during Women's History Month. Watching this show and then taking a road trip to the Little Women house in Concord seems like a fantastic way to celebrate one of America's best-loved authors.
Little Women: The Musical runs March 1 - 19 at Ocean State Theatre Company 1245 Jefferson Boulevard Warwick, RI. Tickets available at oceanstatetheatre.org or by calling (401) 921-6800
(from left) Alison Novelli, Tess Jonas, Michael Luongo, Bryn Martin and Abigail McMahon star as Meg, Jo, Laurie, Beth and Amy. Photo by Mark Turek.