Dallas — It might have been the strange theatrical double bill I was seeing that day—Tennessee Williams followed by Louisa May Alcott (now there’s a dinner party!)—but I’ll frankly admit I was happy to end up with some girlhood literary favorites: the four March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts.
And Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ lively production of the 2005 musical Little Women felt as plucky, spunky and bright as you’d want, with just the right “Jo” to give it plenty of heart. It may be only a so-so musical (with music by Jason Howland and book by Allan Knee, it was a vehicle for the perky—and loud—Sutton Foster on Broadway), but Contemporary makes this show shine.
Newcomer Monique Abry is a triple-threat singer, dancer and comedienne; she plays Josephine (“Jo”) March—Alcott’s alter ego—as smart and gutsy, a coltish, long-legged girl overflowing with hopes and dreams. Jo is full of “bounce and go”—just as the book describes her and every reader imagines—and Abry, a charming, dancer-like Charlotte in Dallas Children’s Theater’s Charlotte’s Web early this year, makes her mark in this more demanding role.
Jo is a feminist born too soon; this is Civil War America, remember. She has a yen for adventure, a head full of stories, and a plan to take care of her family—three sisters, a loving “Marmee” and a father who isn’t much of a businessman when he’s at home. But what’s a girl to do? The world expects Jo to put up her hair, wear skirts to her toes, and work on the “graces” she needs to marry well. Writing books? Definitely un-womanly.
There’s a girl to connect with everyone in Little Women. It’s like the Beatles: were you a John fan, or did you go for Paul, George or Ringo? I, of course, have always been a “Jo.” But there are other choices: Jo’s older sister Meg (Elizabeth McWhorter) is the sweet, romantic type; Beth (Katie Moyes Williams) a gentle, musical, home-loving girl; and youngest sister Amy (Grace Loncar) dreams of dresses, parties and society life—and of winning out over sister Jo, even if she has to be a brat to do it. Guiding the family (father’s a chaplain with the Union Army) is strong, lonely Marmee (Angela Davis), who gets plenty of advice, wanted or not, from her husband’s wealthy Aunt March (Mary Tiner).
Meg quickly falls for John Brooke (Max Swarner), the young man who tutors the rich boy next door, Laurie Laurence (Leo Thomasian). McWhorter and Swarner have a great duet, the sweetly sung “More Than I Am.” Laurie, an adventurous type himself, of course falls hard for Jo—but despite his plea to “Take a Chance on Me,” Jo longs for freedom—and the chance to be “Astonishing” in a way she hasn’t quite nailed down. Abry plants her feet and delivers this first-act closer with strength and conviction—though if you listen too hard to the lyrics (a clunky job from Mindi Dickstein), the song itself is too-generic Disney heroine stuff.
Davis as Marmee glows in two heartfelt ballads, one sung to her absent husband (“Here Alone”). Williams’ Beth is tuneful and cute singing “Off to Massachusetts” (though written for the show, it sounds like an old children’s tune) with crusty neighbor, Mr. Laurence (Dan Servetnick). And Grace Loncar as Amy brings off a nice love song with—we won’t say who, though you probably know—late in the show.
Beyond Abry’s excellent Jo, Brian Hathaway’s comical, touching portrayal of Professor Fritz Bhaer, the German immigrant Jo meets in New York, may be the evening’s other nicest surprise. With a black beard and a slightly Chaplin-esque quality, Hathaway’s bright eyes follow Jo everywhere as she “stages” her latest lurid story to see if he likes it. In “How I Am” he struggles to answer a letter from Jo without giving away how much he misses her. And the night’s best song is one Hathaway and Abry share, the beautiful “Small Umbrella in the Rain.”
Director Michael Serrecchia’s experienced hand shows in the brisk timing and energy of the show, and Scott A. Eckert, on piano and far from the big orchestra he conducts for Lyric Stage, gets a lovely, intimate sound from his small group of musicians. It sounds like the kind of mini-orchestra a Victorian family might hire for an evening party at home—just right for this show.
The set by Rodney Dobbs is a fun super-sized pile of Alcott’s most famous book titles, a few used horizontally as a platform, and some standing upright as the wall/front door of the March home. One large open book (a bit too large for the actors dodging it all night) hangs above the stage, with an ever-changing mix of projected images: original chapter titles and text from the book, posters and photographs that remind us the Civil War is raging. Choreographer Megan Kelly Bates has the cast using every inch of stage for energetic dances that feel spot-on for the period: square dances and polkas, even what looks like a traveling show buck-and-wing. Michael Robinson’s costumes are varied and attractive, though he’s ditched the hoop skirts (to save space onstage?) for gowns with the soft, sweeping lines and leg ‘o mutton sleeves of the late 19th century.
Over the years (Little Women’s first volume was published in 1868) this story has been translated into at least 100 languages, and adapted for multiple stage, movie and TV versions—even dance and animé. And there are other musical versions out there, notably Mark Adamo’s 1998 opera.
This musical version has its faults (why does Father March never come home?), especially a bad habit of applying stock musical theater “formulas” to Alcott’s unpredictable story. In the book, Jo and Professor Bhaer aren’t standard “battling lovers”—they’re true kindred spirits—but the show insists on the formula: opposites attract, and quarreling means you’re meant to fall in love. But there’s enough of the spirit and heart of the story to satisfy, and Contemporary’s fine production is a tuneful, Spark-Note-ish introduction to one of the Great American Stories.