"Little Women" has been an American classic ever since. I'm not exactly sure why. Part of its appeal probably lies in nostalgia for a genteel, refined, uncluttered way of life that has disappeared in modern America. I wouldn't be surprised if, even in 1868, there was already some nostalgia for the Civil War years when the story takes place, much as many people after World War II missed the energy and comradeship and sense of purpose they had felt during the war.
Another reason for its continued popularity might be that it depicts feminism avant la lettre in the character of Jo, who is clearly a fictionalized Louisa May herself. (The word "feminism" did not appear in English until the 1890s.) Whatever the reason, "Little Women" has been adapted to stage and screen several times, and a recent opera of it has received several productions (which is pretty unusual for contemporary operas).
The stage version produced at Albuquerque Little Theatre was adapted by Marisha Chamberlain. It focuses almost exclusively on events from part one of the novel, covering the entire year 1864 and dealing with the various domestic incidents the four sisters and their mother live through while the father, a chaplain, is off at war. The story is episodic, and the only thing that might be called a plot is what will happen between Jo, the second sister, and the young man living next door, Laurie (so called because his last name is Laurence).
The charm of the tale comes from the interactions among the sisters. The language may be more elevated than what we use now, but the situations are those that anyone with siblings can relate to. A death scene is supposed to be the dramatic high point of the play, but for me, the most affecting moment comes with Jo's response to Laurie's proposal of marriage.
This production, ably directed by Paula Stein, handles everything very well. The set by Colby Martin Landers and lighting by Ryan Jason Cook are excellent. The costumes by Carolyn Hogan are perfectly appropriate, and I especially got a kick out of seeing Laurie come in from ice skating wearing a tuxedobut that's the way rich people dressed back then. The wigs, by Joe Moncada, are also very realisticexcept for that thing that plopped itself on Marmee's head.
The four sisters act as if they are actually four sisters, which is essential. Shelby Stebleton as Jo has the most weight to carry, and she carries it effortlessly. Eleanor Smith (Meg), Shelby Paul (Amy), and Karla Iniguez (Beth) are all very good as well. Ninette Mordaunt as Marmee, their mother, and Teddy Eggleston as Hannah the housekeeper, give totally appropriate performances, and it is always good to see these veterans of the local theater scene on stage no matter what the role.
Dominic Lovato is both dashing and sympathetic as Laurie. No wonder nobody can figure Jo out. Robin Lane has a fun time with her short role as snooty Aunt March, and George Williams displays a generosity of spirit as Mr. Laurence. And he is the only one in the cast with a voice resonant enough to fill the house.
Which brings me to my one and only complaint about the Albuquerque Little Theatre. It's not as little as its name implies, and the acoustics leave a lot to be desired. If microphones are used, the voices come from speakers on the sides and it sounds too artificial. If mics are not used, as in this production, everyone has to TALK LOUD, so subtlety of vocal expression is lost, and still a fair number of words get lost on their way to the audience's ears. I wish I knew a solution to this, but for now, my advice is: Sit close.
Little Women, adapted by Marisha Chamberlain from Louisa May Alcott's book, is being presented by Albuquerque Little Theatre through February 3, 2013. Info at www.albuquerquelittletheatre.org or 505-242-4750.