Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham presents New England classic.

By: Dec. 01, 2022

Little Women: The Broadway Musical isn't a traditional Christmas show, although the early scenes mention the holiday and how the family's financial straits will impact their celebration. Their father is away at war, so Marmee and her four daughters - Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth - must pull together and improvise to find the joy of the season. These themes recur throughout the story as the March family faces adversity, happy times, love, loss, and all manner of things that comprise the human condition, realizing that their unity and their love for each other is their strength and solace.

So, if you need your holiday entertainment to contain a lesson or a message, Little Women checks that box. But, at this time of year, and perhaps even more so this year, I want mine to actually be entertaining and heartwarming. Thanks to Director/Choreographer Ilyse Robbins' lifelong affection for Louisa May Alcott's creation and a stellar ensemble, the Greater Boston Stage Company production checks both of those boxes with big, bold marks. It is a string of delights, from the overture and the sisters acting out a Christmas melodrama, through the daily dramas and growing pains of four adolescent girls, to their maturing into women with nuptials afoot.

At its core, Little Women is about family, following your dreams, and listening to your heart. As one of three sisters myself, this play speaks to me in so many ways and I imagine that I am not alone in that feeling. First and foremost, the four actors who portray the March girls exude the je ne sais quoi quality that defines sisterly relationships. Every interaction between them, as a foursome, or a group of three, or one-on-one, is authentic, and each actor finds a way to let us see the makeup of her character as an individual.

That Sara Coombs (Meg), Abriel Coleman (Beth), and Katie Shults (Amy) are able to achieve that is no easy feat as they stand in the considerable shadow of Liza Giangrande (Jo), the member of the family who tells the story and is, arguably, the star at the center of the constellation. The sisters look up to Jo and show their appreciation of her specialness even as they take their turns in the spotlight.

Giangrande, making her GBSC debut, is indeed something special. She bursts to life as Jo from the opening dramatic play-within-a-play performed with her sisters and never lowers her flame. She has a glorious belt, used to grand effect in Jo's anthem "Astonishing," but also has occasion to show off her legit voice, and uses her songs to advance our knowledge of her character. (When I listened to the recording of the original Broadway cast, I decided I preferred Giangrande's rendition over that of Sutton Foster.) The production features a stellar ensemble, but Little Women stands on the shoulders of its Jo and Giangrande's shoulders are supporting the weight of that responsibility and then some.

Coombs is known to GBSC audiences and once again displays her considerable dance skills, as well as bringing out both the practical and romantic sides of Meg. Despite being the eldest, she exhibits no jealousy that the power of her position is ceded to Jo, being more free to quietly follow her own path. When she meets and falls in love with Laurie's tutor John Brooke (velvet-voiced Michael Jennings Mahoney), we see her transformation into a singular woman, cut from the same cloth as Marmee (Amy Barker), who capably handled the role of single mother thrust upon her by her husband's absence for military service. Barker plays her as one part stiff upper lip and four parts caring mother, her humanity always shining through. The other adult in the family circle is wealthy Aunt March, convincingly played by Deanna Dunmyer as the female version of Mr. Laurence, crabby on the outside, but having the girls' best interests at heart.

Coleman (Beth) and Shults (Amy) are two sides of a coin as the younger siblings. The former is sweet and good, while the latter has some of the less than admirable traits of the put upon middle child. Beth is often in the background, until her illness puts focus on her, but Coleman grabs our attention with her bright smile and lovely voice. She holds her own with veteran actor Robert Saoud (Mr. Laurence), at his curmudgeonly best until Beth melts his heart. Following the formula that negative attention is still attention, Amy acts out in several instances, and Shults elicits our disdain. However, changed by love in the end, she draws us over to her side just in time for her wedding to Laurie (Kenny Lee).

In a story that is primarily all about the women, the men in the company all give strong performances. Lee is delightful as the earnest, eager to please Laurie who is determined to be a part of the March family one way or another. He has a beautiful voice and seemingly boundless energy, making him a joy to watch. Purposely lower on the energy scale is Professor Bhaer, a buttoned-up tutor who struggles to make sense of Jo and his feelings for her. Kevin Patrick Martin (also the Dance Captain) captures Bhaer's conflicted persona and allows us to warm to him once he opens his heart (beautifully expressed in song).

Music Director Matthew Stern and a quintet of musicians make sure we can appreciate the score with a mix of character songs, soaring ballads, and energetic barn burners, and Robbins' choreography evokes the period and highlights the skills of the cast. The design team of Shelley Barish (scenic), Katie Whittemore (lighting), Gail Astrid Buckley (costume), John Stone (sound), and Jason Ries (properties) collaborate to put a homey landscape on stage that reflects the era, the family's situation, and their emotional ties to the place that connects them.

Walking into this show, it is natural to think that you know the story and you know what to expect. After all, it is a New England story, the author and her family grew up just down the road in Concord, and many of us have probably visited the home, read the book, and seen one of its many iterations on film. However, as pleasurable as any of those experiences have been, they pale in comparison to the GBSC production of Little Women. Remember the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy steps out of the black and white fallen farmhouse into the glorious, eye-popping technicolor landscape of Munchkinland? This is like that.

Photo credit: Nile Scott Studios (Sara Coombs, Meg; Liza Giangrande, Jo; Amy Barker, Marmee; Abriel Coleman, Beth; Katie Shults, Amy)

Little Women: The Broadway Musical

Book by Allan Knee, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott; Lyrics by Mindi Dickson; Music by Jason Howland; Directed and Choreographed by Ilyse Robbins; Music Direction by Matthew Stern; Production Stage Manager, Shauwna Dias Grillo; Assistant Stage Manager, Emily Fitzgerald; Scenic Designer, Shelley Barish; Lighting Designer, Katie Whittemore; Costume Designer, Gail Astrid Buckley; Sound Designer, John Stone; Properties Designer, Jason Ries; Fight Choreographer, Angie Jepson; Dialect Coach, Lee Nishri-Howitt

CAST (in alphabetical order): Amy Barker, Caleb Chew, Abriel Coleman, Sara Coombs, Deanna Dunmyer, Jillian Gavin, Liza Giangrande, Kenny Lee, Michael Jennings Mahoney, Kevin Patrick Martin, Sarajane Morse Mullins, Colin SanGiacomo, Robert Saoud, Katie Shults

MUSICIANS: Josh Goldman, Libby Jones, Caroline Leguia, Jeri Sykes, Valerie Thompson

Performances through December 23, 2022, at Greater Boston Stage Company, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA; Box Office 781-279-2200 or