By Ellen Wilson Dilks
“Love is a great beautifier.”
Villanova Theatre concludes their 2016—2017 regular season with the musical adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic “Little Women”. Directed by Professor Valerie Joyce, the production runs on the University’s Vasey stage until April 9, 2017—with performances Tuesday thru Sunday.
Written in 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel was a huge success. Alcott wrote the books rapidly over several months at the request of her publisher. The novel follows the lives of four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March—detailing their passage from childhood to womanhood, and is loosely based on the author and her three sisters. She had struggled to be published for a number of years, writing primarily under the male pseudonym A. M. Barnard. In 1860, Alcott began writing for the Atlantic Monthly; when the Civil War started, she served six weeks as a nurse at a Union hospital near Washington until she became ill with typhoid. She wrote home about her experiences as a nurse, and the letters were published in the paper. They were later collected—and slightly revised—and published as Hospital Sketches, bringing Alcott her first critical recognition. However, none of her other works ever reached the popularity of “Little Women”,
“Little Women, the Musical” (following 55 preview performances) made its Broadway debut on January 23, 2005; it ran for 137 performances and closed on May 22, 2005. Playwright Allen Knee devoted five years to creating the book; he was then joined by lyricist Mindi Dickstein and composer Jason Howland to complete the adaptation. There were two workshop productions at Duke University in 2001 and 2004—the second of which was directed by Susan Schulman.
Villanova’s production is fast-paced and high-spirited. Director Joyce has assembled a solid ensemble of under-grads and MFA students and guided them to an end product that is both funny and touching. Her directorial touches are subtle and allow the actors the freedom to create. Joshua Gallagher’s multi-level set allows the action to flow nicely from scene to scene as Jerrold R. Forsyth’s lighting focuses the attention where it is needed. John Stovicek’s supplemental soundscape creates the appropriate context for certain settings, while, once again, Janus Stefanowicz provides beautifully detailed 1880s costumes that look authentic yet allow the actors to move freely. Though hidden upstage, the orchestra is solid; they are Luis Cuevas and Russel Kotcher on violins, Justin Yoder on cello, Dan Turkos on bass and Marybeth Kern and Matthew Shipp on reeds. Well done, ladies and gentlemen.
At the center of the “Little Women” story are the four March sisters, especially the fiercely independent “Jo.” The story also features the family and friends of the sisters. Lexi Schrieber is all motherly warmth as the girls beloved “Marmee,” while Galen Blanzaco is all starchy properness as wealthy Aunt March. Kevin Esmond imbues the crusty Mr. Lawrence with an underlying warmth and humor; as his nephew “Laurie,” Chris Monaco perfectly captures an awkward, socially shy young man who finds his tribe (so to speak) with the lively March sisters. Mark Wheeler perfectly fills the bill as Laurie’s well-mannered tutor, Mr. John Brooke. Megan Slater gives a nice comedic turn as boarding house proprietress Mrs. Kirk, and Dan Cullen is one big hilariously quirky nerve ending as Professor Bhaer. In addition, Heather Lamos, Alexandra King and Sisi Wright add wonderful support as the Chorus—their work as Jo’s stories come to life is great fun.
Now, let us get to the March sisters. Jaclyn Siegel is adorably bratty as status-conscious youngest sister Amy, while Allyce Morrissey balances her perfectly as gentle peacemaker Beth, the second youngest of the quartet. Eldest sister Meg, the closest in spirit to Jo, is beautifully played by Kara Krichman. She deftly takes her character through the arc of young girl to wife and mother.
“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
Finally, there is Jo. Feisty, tomboy Jo. She is the anchor of the story and carries the bulk of the load, and Nova has found a perfect actor/role match. Laura Barron is a compact ball of fire. Her energetic, passionate performance truly conveys Jo’s determination to live life on her terms.
As to the musical… To fit everything into a jammed two and a quarter hours, the deeper aspects of the novel are only hinted at—sometimes at the cost of character development. The music is serviceable, in the vein of traditional American musicals, but the score doesn’t really grab you, you don’t leave the theatre humming anything. The lyrics lack the cleverness of say Sondheim or Kander & Ebb. The musical has evolved so much in the last twenty years or so, with such game-changing works as Chicago, Sweeney Todd, Rent and Hamilton, that sometimes the more traditional pieces seem too tame.
Villanova’s production of “Little Women the Musical” is highly entertaining and most suitable for all ages. I would recommend making the trip to the University to catch this one; there are some marvelous performances, with Monaco and Barron being the standouts.
If you go: Remaining performances are on April 4 thru the 8 at 8pm, and on the 9 at 2pm. Villanova is located at 800 Lancaster Avenue, at the intersection with Ithan Avenue. To get to Vasey Hall, take that first entrance on Ithan. For information and to make reservations, visit www.villanovatheatre.org or call the Box Office at 610-519-7474