Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Like Alcott's classic, the musical is the story of the four March sisters and their mother Marmee navigating the pitfalls of everyday life while their father is away fighting in the Civil War. Oldest sister Meg is a hopeless romantic, sweet-tempered Beth is unflappably kind, precocious Amy causes all sorts of trouble, and our protagonist Jo is a social misfit and aspiring author. Marmee has her hands full helping her girls navigate everything from first dances to grumpy old neighbors.
Caitlin Ort is utterly charming as Meg. Paola Morales has a lilting voice and gives the most authentic performance of the entire production as Beth. Unfortunately, Cara DiPietro does not nail Amy's angsty youth or her aloof maturity. Marielle Issa is an enthusiastic and confident Jo March. Donnie Hammond imbibes Marmee with genuine maternal affection and her second act ballad, "Days of Plenty," is one of the show's highlights. Musical director Christopher P. Ertelt has wisely chosen to forgo any artificial amplification in the wonderfully intimate Sedgwick Theater, but the balance is wrong and it can be difficult to make out lyrics over the five piece orchestra.
Some of the best performances in this Little Women actually come from its men. Frank X is a perfect Mr. Laurence, the March sisters' surly neighbor turned dear friend. Quintessence favorite Lee Thomas Cortopassi is winning as Meg's scholarly love interest. Hilariously awkward and earnest to a fault, Jered McLenigan is a delightful Professor Bhaer. Will Stephan Connell stepped into the role of Laurie last minute when the original actor was a called away to an opportunity on Broadway, but his adorably energetic and eager performance feels effortless.
To keep the narrative from becoming too serious, Al Rawas minimizes the conflicts between the March sisters and within Jo herself. It is an effective method of keeping things largely upbeat (there is still some unavoidable tragedy), but it it robs the production of the dramatic tension that makes Alcott's novel so riveting. (Spoilers ahead) There is absolutely no romantic chemistry between Connell and Issa, so when Laurie proposes to Jo, there is no suspense or tension with regard to Jo's reply. Later, when Laurie shows up engaged to Amy, it seems like a reasonable decision rather than a heartless betrayal. Amy herself returns from Europe styled like a lady of polite society, but is clearly the same incorrigible little girl underneath. In the novel Amy returns home so entitled and pretentious it still makes me want to scream.
Despite the many obstacles she faces, Jo never seems to doubt herself or her plans. Issa's relentless determination is inspiring, but I cannot help but wish there was more frustration and uncertainty to overcome. On the other hand, Little Women is not a serious drama or period piece. It is a sweet little musical designed to pull at the heartstrings, warm the soul, and make us think about the magic of family. Al Rawas's two hour and forty minute production certainly does all of those with gusto.
Little Women runs through January 2, 2022, at Quintessence Theatre Group, Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia PA. Visitors to the Sedgwick Theater will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test in order to attend. Following the current policy of the city of Philadelphia, patrons are also required to wear masks at all times when inside the theater. For tickets and information visit QTGrep.org or call 215-987-4450.