BWW Review: LITTLE WOMEN Warms Hearts at Dallas Theater Center
Many American theater-goers have either read Little Women in High School, or seen the play, musical, or recent star-studded film. When staging this show, the challenge therefore becomes- how do you keep it fresh and original? Luckily for us, Dallas Theater Center has never had a problem with a lack of creativity, and they didn't start with this production of Little Women! The elaborate Hamilton-esque set, superb direction, and a rock-solid cast make this show a knockout.
Saccharine-sweet characters are often not the most sought-after roles in a show; too often the character comes across as boring and one-dimensional. Despite this challenge, Maggie Thompson in the role of Beth March was anything but. Although her character was indeed the conscience of the family, her confidence and carriage commanded a certain respect- and an endearing love. Thompson portrayed a quiet and solid strength through Beth, illuminating the show with her own pure light.
Amy March's character had the most pronounced growth throughout the play, and Lilli Hokama pulled it off beautifully. Always entertaining, Amy's tantrums in the first act were full-throated, powerful, and most importantly- believable. As the show progresses and Amy grows up, the way she carries herself becomes more thoughtful, her words more carefully chosen. She has learned the game that adults play, and she has nearly mastered it. On the one hand, Amy's eagerness to be an adult makes her treat her sisters cruelly- particularly Jo. On the other hand, she never loses her quick-tempered nature, and she's no less triggered by Jo's behavior. It's impossible for one to take their eyes off Hokama and her fiery presence when she's onstage!
Meg- the eldest of the March sisters- was played by Jennie Greenberry. Like Beth, she is one of the peace-keepers of the family- though more assertive, much like a second mother. Though Meg desires the more conventional path of becoming a wife and mother, it makes her no less interesting. In the second act, Meg has a truly explosive scene where she releases all her pent-up rage as a result of her domestic duties and financial struggles. Greenberry was positively electric in this scene, making one feel as though they, too, might have done exactly the same thing as Meg. Despite this incredible release of emotion, Meg gathers her strength and returns to her duties- and an apologetic and empathetic husband, too.
Beloved Marmie (Liz Mikel)- the matriarch and rock of the family- exemplified strength and endurance. Progressive for her time, Marmie understands that each of her daughters are unique and therefore need different things from her. Rather than forcing them all along one cookie-cutter path, Marmie encourages her daughters to flourish in ways of their own choosing. Mikel mastered the balance of being nurturing, yet tough, in this important role. She captured the unshakeable strength of a woman whose husband is at war while she cares for her ever-demanding family and the needs of home- in my opinion, this performance was far superior to that of Laura Dern in the film.
And then there is Jo (Pearl Rhein)- the central figure and driver of this story. She is free-spirited to the bone. Jo's desire to break free of societal expectations as well as her ambition to become a great writer make her intensely driven. Furthermore, her devotion to her own countercultural ideals do sometimes cause her to be insensitive, provoking others- especially Amy. Rhein's performance was pure boldness, punctuated by moments of vulnerability: in short, she embodied the spirit of a fascinating and complicated character.
You can't have a Jo without a Laurie, and Louis Reyes McWilliams played this counterpart spectacularly. Ever-cheerful, and ever under Jo's spell, Laurie became a fixture of the March household after encountering a distraught Amy on her way home from school. His repartee and disdain for society quickly made him Jo's equal, and his ultimate crushing disappointment made him just as human. McWilliams and Rhein have a truly delightful chemistry, equal parts banter and horseplay. Like so many will-they-or-won't-they relationships, you can't wait to see what happens next.
Andrew Crowe played the role of Robert March, though more importantly, he played a mesmerizing violin throughout the show's performance. His fiddling added an incredible harmony to this already rich show. Portraying the role of John Brooks- Laurie's tutor and Meg's husband- was DTC resident Alex Organ, doing justice to this reserved and unassuming character. His tenderness often brought out a softer side of Meg in their scenes together. Mike Sears brought both severity and joviality to the stage in the roles of Mr. Laurence and Mr. Dashwood, respectively. No one can break though Mr. Laurence's tough exterior except for the sweet and brave Beth March. Finally, Sally Nystuen Vahle delighted the audience as Hannah, Mrs. Mingott, and Aunt March. Each role was light and comedic in its own right. Vahle mastered Hannah's Irish brogue, and likewise mastered the flightiness of a matchmaking busybody as Mrs. Mingott! Her more complicated role of Aunt March proved she could also be severe and insensitive, provoking Jo to outrage- admittedly not a difficult task to accomplish. Each character in this show contributed greatly to the strength of this work of art as a whole.
There's so much to unpack in how fabulous the set of this show was. The extremely impressive turntable stage added a seamless and fluid cadence to the performance. At times it was used to show the passing of times, at times to give the effect of party-goers dancing in a ballroom, and at other times it allowed a renewed focus on individuals standing still as the other characters swirled around them. Chandeliers that gracefully descended also added a fluid and seamless dimension. The most impressive montage of the performance was the scene in which Beth becomes ill for the first time. The way the light fixtures flared at the same moment that characters slowed their movements, while a teal light illuminated the back wall, indicated a haunting series of days. Scenic designer Wilson Chin and lighting designer Marcus Dilliard showed us what true excellence looks like in Little Women.
Between Amy's elegant, flouncing dresses, and Jo's masculine trousers, the costumes were fantastic. Each ensemble complimented a character's role and personality. Despite the varied scenes of elaborate parties, a wedding, and theatrical rehearsals in the March home, there were not many costume changes- nevertheless, additional costumes were not needed, and simple adjustments to clothing were often all that was needed to indicate a different scene.
Little Women is such a gem because it captures the universal experiences and relationships of so many women. How these women handle various demands of children, society, unrequited love, and ambition- just to name a few- speaks to the lives of women all over the world, from every age. It reveals a raw glimpse of everyday family life, and all that comes with it- and still, it is not only rich, but moving. Finally, Dallas Theater Center assembled a wonderfully diverse cast, breaking the mold of what is normally seen in this show taking place in 19th century New York. As I say with every DTC production- this show is not to be missed!