Little Women

by J. Autumn Needles
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Dec 2, 2013
The cast of ’Little Women’ at ArtsWest
The cast of ’Little Women’ at ArtsWest  (Source:ArtsWest Playhouse)

When you still have the same copy of "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott that your great-grandmother gave you and which you've read at least once a year for the past 40, it's tough to look with objective eyes at a musical based on the book. ArtsWest is taking a swing at the Broadway musical "Little Women" (book by Allan Knee) for the holidays under the direction of Mathew Wright.

ArtsWest is a smaller venue without a big budget, but set designer Christopher Mumaw makes the most of it with moveable set pieces that take us through the years of the March family: four sisters and their beloved Marmee and the neighbors next door.

The book "Little Women" covers a lot of territory, which the musical compresses. We begin more than halfway through the book with young aspiring writer Jo March (EmilyRose Frasca) living in a boardinghouse in New York trying to sell a story to the newspapers. Fellow tenant Professor Bhaer (Danny Kim) listens to her read her work and tells her she can do better by following her own unique style.

To find her voice, Jo reminisces back to her younger days at home with her three sisters: Amy (Maddy Kennard), Beth (Amanda Louise Carpp) and Meg (Marissa Ryder). From there, we get the Reader's Digest condensed version of the family's story.

For those who know and love the book, the musical version is frustrating. The characters never quite live up to the original version, having bits of their personalities snipped off for the sake of time. Mr. Laurence (Jeff Church) becomes a grumpy curmudgeon, only tamed by Beth's sweetness, and John Brooke (Morgan Bader) becomes a tongue-tied fool around Meg, rather than the tender, steadfast lover of the book.

I found myself having to shush the little indignant voice in my head when something didn't match up: "Why are Jo and Beth singing about a kite at the beach when they're supposed to be talking about the birds? Why does Laurie keep talking about all the medals he's won at school? And why isn't Jo calling him Teddy, instead of Laurie?" The underlying tone of aspiring to Christian goodness and doing one's duty is cut out altogether.

If you want a pleasant holiday show somewhat off the beaten track, go check out "Little Women" at ArtsWest. Enjoy the music and the enthusiastic cast. Then go home and read the book.

Within those constraints though, the performers do a fine job of giving us the characters as written. Frasca as Jo presents us with a fiery and rebellious hellion, who nevertheless deeply loves her family and particularly her precious sister, Beth.

While Carpp struggles a bit to look sickly as Beth grows ill, she does a lovely job of portraying her as a fresh-faced girl who loves freely and gladly. Ryder as Meg manages to give the dutiful daughter a pleasant depth and sweetness.

The music by Jason Howland (lyrics by Mindi Dickstein), while uneven, is enjoyable. Jo and Beth's duet "Some Things Are Meant to Be" is quite lovely, as is the toe-tapping number "Off to Massachusetts" between Beth and Mr. Laurence.

At times the orchestra overpowers the cast, but the musical group numbers, whether duets or the full cast, are the highlights of the show. When the four sisters take in young neighbor Laurie Laurence (Michael Krenning) as their honorary brother, the five sing a spirited "Five Forever."

While Kim's Professor Bhaer is quite different from how I'd imagine him, he makes a charming suitor for Jo as he falls in love and their duet "Small Umbrella in the Rain" is quite satisfying. Patricia Haines-Ainsworth as Aunt March quickly became one of my favorites, giving us a funnier and more robust version of the opinionated aunt than the book. A sample exchange between Aunt March and Jo: "I don't like that dress," says Aunt March. "It's one of your old ones," replies Jo. "Well. It looked better on me," says Aunt March.

If you want a pleasant holiday show somewhat off the beaten track, go check out "Little Women" at ArtsWest. Enjoy the music and the enthusiastic cast. Then go home and read the book.

"Little Women" runs through Dec. 29 at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery, 4711 California Ave. SW in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-938-0339 or visit www.ArtsWest.org.

J. Autumn Needles lives in Seattle where she writes and teaches yoga and fitness.


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