Hartford Children's Theatre brings LITTLE WOMEN to life through January 29


Little Women
Book by Allan Knee
Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein
Music by Jason Howland
Directed by Ryan Ratelle
at Hartford Children's Theatre, HCT Carriage House Theatre, 360 Farmington Avenue, Hartford
through January 29, 2012

Hartford Children’s Theatre, Greater Hartford’s “little company that could,” continues to chug along making a strong claim to its tagline “Connecticut’s premier theatre for children and families.”  Toiling for over two decades in the shadow of Hartford’s professional companies and touring houses, HCT was recently named Connecticut’s outstanding community theatre by the readers of BroadwayWorld.com.  With an increased effort at solidifying the quality of their Main Stage offerings, HCT has become an institution to watch and a strong choice for family entertainment.

That is not to say that it does not have a little further to travel, as evidenced in HCT’s current production of Little Women.  Artistic Director Ryan Ratelle delivers a crowd-pleasing, mostly-sound rendering of the musical based on Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century classic.  Put through the Broadway blender, Alcott’s tale of the four March sisters manages to survive a strong Disney-fication.  Where the book shuffles the focus between the sisters while maintaining the autobiographical Jo as the story’s heart, the musical mainly focuses on Jo and how her sisters orbit around her. 

Jo, as represented in the musical, amps the character’s tomboyishness to a bit of an excess.  Clad in inappropriate men’s attire for the majority of the musical, she leaps, bounds, and browbeats people with her over-earnestness.   The musical simplifies Alcott’s heroine by confusing her with Belle, Ariel, Pocahontas or any one of a dozen recent Disney heroines.  She’s smart, sassy and, darnit, she can keep up with the boys AND read!  Megan MacLeod’s performance and Ratelle’s decision to adhere to the Broadway interpretation do not help the character rescue her depth until the second act.  Jo should be (to borrow a term from Eve Ensler) “an emotional creature.”  It only comes through great loss and the discovery of someone who intellectually stimulates her that she fully matures.  MacLeod does sing the part beautifully, particularly her Act 1 and Act 2 closing numbers, and proves to be a capable actor. 

The musical’s decision to focus maddeningly on Jo at the expense of Meg, Beth and Amy is a frustration.  As portrayed by Siobhan Fitzgerald, the usually bland Meg ends up being realistic and heartfelt.  With a strong singing voice, Fitzgerald charms the few times her character takes center stage.  Emily Bordonaro makes for a terrific, gentle Beth.  Blessed with a lovely voice, her duet “Off to Massachusetts” with Mr. Laurence (Erik Leeming) is the most delightful moment of the show.  The musical shortchanges the most emotionally charged part of the book, the death of Beth, and the odd decision to have the Scarlet Fever-addled Beth get out of her wheelchair and sing a duet makes for a less-than-poignant farewell.

Another odd health-related choice occurs when Amy falls through the ice trying to keep up with Jo.  She appears to be cruising toward hypothermia when moments later she tosses aside her blanket and joins in a musical number.  Casie Pepe-Winshell is a familiar face to HCT audiences, having grown up before our eyes in productions over the years.  Like the three other March Sisters in this production, she has a powerful vocal presence.  While well-suited for the mature Amy in the second act, Miss Pepe-Winshell and Mr. Ratelle do not make the most of the bratty first-act Amy, who provides the book with much of its humor.

Emely Larson does a fabulous job portraying the girls’ beloved mother Marmee.  Her two solo numbers are standouts and play to Larson’s musicality.  Shannon Sobolow plays the starchy Aunt March gamely, but her high-pitched vocals can be a little tough on the ears.  Her portrayal of Mrs. Kirk is much more successful and merry.

Little Women’s men are all well enacted, particularly Josiah Rowe’s Dr. Bhaer and Nick D’Angelo’s Mr. Brooke.  Jim Nassef gets the production’s biggest laughs as the besotted Laurie.  He has a great deal of fun with the role, although he occasional strains reaching the role’s top notes.  Erik Leeming rounds out the cast as the crotchety Mr. Laurence who slowly has his heart melted by the winsome Beth.

Nestled into HCT’s 77-seat Carriage House Theatre (tucked away on Hartford’s busy Farmington Avenue, behind the company’s gingerbread Victorian headquarters), Little Women is right at home.  The coziness of the March family’s modest house shines through.  Ratelle opts to replicate the Broadway set of the production, which suits the space.  With a running time of nearly two and a half hours, the show is probably not suitable for the littlest of “little women,” but it makes for an entertaining, enjoyable evening for families.

After the company’s recent successes with faithful renderings of Pinkalicious, Hairspray, and now Little Women, the next step for Hartford Children’s Theatre appears to be putting their own distinctive artistic  stamp and Ratelle’s artistic voice on the productions they are tackling.  It will be interesting to see how the company continues to grow and evolve in the coming years.

Photo by Thomas Giroir.

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