One of my favourite parts of the experience of watching the musical Little Women last night was remembering bits of the story as I watched it happen on stage. I didn’t love Louisa May Alcott’s book when I first encountered it, but I still read it over and over, like many girl-identified children of my era who read faster than my parents could drive me back to the library. The best things about the book were Jo’s tomboyish-for-the-time outspokenness and determination, the genuine affection among the different sisters each with her own flaws, and the way the new-boy-next-door (lonely, orphaned, and probably with his own variations from gender norms of the culture) was welcomed and swept into their games and projects. My least favourite parts of the book were the parts where Jo rejects Laurie’s romantic overtures but and then changes her previous plan of staying single when she gets to know Professor Bhaer. I didn’t like the example of best friends and equals Jo and Laurie not being romantically suited, with all the March girls ending up with an older more powerful man (Jo with the Professor, Meg with Laurie’s tutor John, and Laurie finally getting engaged to Amy, the youngest of the sisters.)
The stage-musical version (book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein) and the Foote in the Door production currently playing at L’UniThéâtre enhance all the good things I remembered about the book and make the things I disliked less objectionable. The sisters are wonderful together, different from each other but protective of each other and of their mother. Alyssa Paterson is the oldest, responsible Meg, Ruth Wong-Miller is ambitious and impulsive Jo, Fiona Cain is kind frail Beth, and Natasha Mason is Amy, the whiny youngest at the start of the book who is transformed for the better when Aunt March (Stephanie Sartore) takes her to Europe and guides her into well-off cultured society, with enough money to pursue her interests. I found it very easy to believe that Jo didn’t care about clothes and the rest of the family didn’t have money to spend on fancy ones, but I was still fascinated to see them take for granted movement in hoop skirts (including stomping up and down stairs, sitting gracefully on the floor (Meg) and falling in a pretend tragic-death (Jo). The costumes also fitted with a bit I remembered about Alcott herself being of dress-reform convictions and the March family not putting the girls in corsets. Wong-Miller is well cast as Jo and has a strong singing voice. Carolyn Ware (most recently Nettie in Carousel) is lovely as Marmee and Stephanie Sartore is very funny as both Aunt March and the boarding house landlady Mrs. Kirk.
The men in the show helped to reconcile me to the romantic pairings I had been irritated by as a teenager, too. Stephen Allred as Laurie was an eccentric boy whose life was definitely improved when the March sisters took him in, and then a kind young man who immediately took no for an answer when Jo turned him down. And although young me had disliked the book version of Professor Bhaer as old, boring, and bossy, Dave Smithson plays him with self-aware humour and without dominating body language. The script says that he’s thirty-four (not so old), his literary critique of Jo’s stories seems more respectful in the stage version, and their engagement/future plan doesn’t feel like Jo abandoning her own goals for his, but as “give me a task!”-Jo moving on to a new challenge and Fritz embracing it. Bob Klakowich is fun to watch as Laurie’s grieving and cranky grandfather transforms to shy Beth’s gentle benefactor and the proud supporter of Laurie and Amy’s wedding. Adam Sartore’s part as John Brooke is small and less memorable, but the scene where he and Meg first meet is charming.
One pleasant surprise for me was the scenes from Jo’s imagination, in which the other actors perform as characters from her stories. I loved how the sketches showed the maturing of her literary vision and ended up with a tale that was both credible as adventure a newspaper editor would pay for and satisfying to modern feminist sensibilities. Fight choreography is credited to Chance Heck.
I liked the show a lot. The pacing was good, some of the music was earworm-memorable, and the simple set (Leland Stelck’s design) worked for the various locations needed (the family parlour, Jo’s garret, the boarding house, Aunt March’s house, and outdoors. ) Trish Van Doornum directed and Daniel Belland was music director.
Little Women plays tonight, tomorrow afternoon, and Wednesday to Saturday next week (Nov 8-11) at L’UniThéâtre. Tickets are available through both Tix on the Square and EventBrite, and there should be some at the door.
And now I think I will read the book again.