Soaring from the pages of Louisa May Alcott’s well-known story of sisterhood and female ambition in the 1860s, American University’s Department of Performing Arts’ production of “Little Women” pulled my heart deep into the surprisingly relatable and transformative lives of the four March girls – Jo, Amy, Meg and Beth.
Taking place in a quiet Massachusetts town during the Civil War, “Little Women” follows the lives of the March sisters and their mother, Marmee, as they face financial struggles while their father is at war. When their father falls ill and Beth contracts scarlet fever, the women must depend on their unique bond more than ever.
Runningthroughout October at the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre under Director Karl Kippola and Music Director Nathan Beary Blustein, the entire production exceeded my expectations ofan old-time story accompanied by sweet romantic ballads.
The flawlessly performed score – music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein – immediately saved the audience from the cast’s awkward introduction of the characters they played. Although I appreciated the possible intent of novel-like exposition, the music bloomed from offstage, transporting the audience away from limbo of stage-smiling and summarizing to the real, full story of the March sisters.
From there, the storytelling prevailed above all other factors. The clever set felt more and more like a familiar home as the musical progressed. Though it took a moment for my imagination to catch up, the slight shift of windows and furniture helped create a continuous narrative of distinct settings without being disruptive.
Even the lighting adjusted as the audience walked alongside the sisters in their personal journeys, the background igniting in reds and oranges during times of inspiration, celebration or love, and cooling to blues and purples when grief took hold.
But, more than the lighting or setting, the incredible vulnerability that the actors brought to their characters made the audience forget that they lived in a fictional world 150 years ago. The actors dropped their characters’ internal dreams and struggles right in the lap of the audience.
Marmee (Hannah Ruth Wellons in the Oct. 28 matinee) was the first one to peel away any preconceived notions of a superficial telling of a mother raising four daughters as her husband serves in the war. While she had to be brave for her daughters, she reminds the audience that fear pummels her everyday. Even the decision to position Marmee downstage right, while keeping the rest of the stage lit, heightened her feeling of loneliness that seeped into the audience.
However, not all was doom and gloom in this novel-turned-musical known for its story of love and loss. Laurie Laurence (Drew Bondy) bounded on the stage with such innocence and enthusiasm for everything – especially Jo March – that I couldn’t wipe a goofy grin off my face whenever he entered a scene.
In one of his feature songs, “Take a Chance on Me,” Laurie sings “You make me beam,” and every person in the audience must have been beaming right along with him as Laurie poured out energy and utter joy, frequently jumping on park benches to declare his happiness. Not to mention Bondy’s sweet vocals that rang through the theater.
But, if we’re going to talk about actors that embraced their character and breathed life into them, I cannot neglect Julia Messer, who played the guideless, independent, spunky, I-don’t-need-no-man character of Jo March at the Oct. 28 matinee.
The way Jo jumped around stage clumsily and occasionally whipped a dramatic look with a wry grin at the audience when she knew she was on to something good was captivating. Even the way she hunched her shoulders slightly and refused to conform completely to expected feminine etiquette proved Jo’s characterization flowed through every move. Messer fit fearlessly into the rugged boots of her character.
Although Jo is probably the heroine of the story, the musical would be nothing without the special familial bond between the characters because, after all, this story isn’t called “Little Woman.” The actors balanced each other’s characters harmoniously. While Meg’s (Emily Corinne Smith) facial expressions mesmerized me from the start, Amy’s (Saira Grewal) intonation perfectly matched the familiar whines of a child. Other characters who weaved into the lives of the March family – Professor Bhaer, Mr. Laurence, Aunt March and John Brooke – each had quirks or fascinatingly more layers that enriched the overall story.
Scenes and songs like “Delighted” brought the characters physically close together, too, showcasing the strength and encouragement of a family built on love. I just got to peek into this family’s life thanks to the vulnerable and impactful acting and directing of “Little Women.”