A Handsome, Homespun Little Women Sings out at Village Theatre
Unless you were buried under a rock for the last century you have probably encountered Little Women, if not the original book, then one of the three Hollywood film versions starring Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson or Winona Ryder as Jo March, the Civil war era heroine based on Alcott herself. New York actress Victoria-Huston Elem's Jo has the necessary haughtiness, self-righteousness and courage, as well as a suitably strong voice, though oddly few of the show's most memorable songs. The one exception is her duet "Hold on to Me" with the exceptional Michaela Koerner as Jo's frail sister Beth. Koerner, bearing a marked resemblance to Margaret O'Brien who played Beth in the 1949 film, avoids the treacle-like sweetness that informs her role, and overcomes the handicap of this adaptation's invention that it is the spirit of Beth guiding Jo into writing "Little Women" as she takes her down memory lane. Koerner has a lovely, bell-like soprano voice and she delivers an exquisite rendition of the show's most tender song, "The Music of Our Home." Shanna Marie Palmer as Amy, the youngest March daughter, is a comic riot in her early scenes where Amy's selfishness and immaturity dominate, but what really marks her performance is the character arc she takes as Amy grows up and marries. As the staunch and sensible Meg, the most thankless role of the four sisters, Krystle Armstrong still manages to be a strong presence, especially in the scene where she bemoans the fact that her twins now get all the attention, and later when she coerces Jo out of her mourning for Amy.
Anne Allgood as the girls' mother Marmee was a shrewd bit of casting. This savvy actress never lets the woman become too saintly, beatific or perfect, and invests her with strength and a rye sense of humor underneath. Her next to closing ballad "I Have A Garden" is like a less pious version of the matriarchal character song found in every other Rodgers & Hammerstein show, and Allgood sings the daylights out of it. On the men's side, Dane Stokinger earnestly steals nearly every scene he is in as Laurie, the boy next door who first loves Jo, but grows up to marry Amy. Stokinger plays his laughs honestly and in the waning moments of act one, he vibrantly delivers the best song in the score, "Fly at Me," Laurie's soaring declaration of love to the disinterested Jo. Christian Duhamel is most agreeable as the very milquetoasty John Brookes, Laurie's tutor who later weds Meg, and Chad Jennings does well by the role of Jo's older, European boardinghouse-mate Professor Bhaer, though clearly a good decade too young for the role. Sharva Maynard is a kick as the doughty Aunt March, though the character really doesn't warrant having a duet of her own. Village stalwarts Hugh Hastings as prickly old Mr. Laurence and Brian Higham as the girls' father, Reverend March, make the most of limited stage time.
The ensemble and smallish pit band do respectably under Tim Symons' music direction, and Kathryn Van Meter's choreography of the one real dance number, "The Mazurka," is spiritedly performed, no matter how sandwiched into the story it feels. Bill Forrester's suggestive scenic approach keeps the scene changes brisk, and things never get too Currier & Ivesy for their own good, thanks also to Tom Sturge's lighting design, and Catherine Hunt's appropriate mid-19th century costumes.
It is hard to judge whether this book and score for Little Women might have had more longevity on the Great White Way than the Sutton Foster/ Maureen McGovern vehicle that ultimately played there. But, with a bit of pruning and perhaps a few song rewrites, it's not hard to envision this version thriving in stock and children's theatre companies for sometime to come.
Little Women runs through April 27, 2008 at Village Theatre, 303 Front Street North, Issaquah and May 2-18, 2008 at the Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Avenue, Everett. For more information got to www.villagetheatre.org.