Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Little Women Packs a Big, Beautiful Punch

Adapting favorite childhood stories to a new medium can be tricky business. 

Photo by Rich Ryan

The unique mix of nostalgia and ownership that childhood characters breed can wreak all sorts of havoc on an adaptation's profitability. For example: despite coming from an eternally beloved book series and boasting a cast of Hollywood's most thoroughbred All Stars, the His Dark Materials trilogy was never fully adapted to the silver screen after fans deemed the first installation, The Golden Compass, not faithful enough. It was a colossal failure and huge financial loss for the studio that has scared off any other future attempts in the foreseeable future.

Lately (or at least locally), it seems people are getting much better at transitioning such stories to new formats. The Children's Theater has been nailing literary adaptations for years now, particularly with their Dr. Seuss shows (see my thoughts on The Lorax here and How The Grinch Stole Christmas, which reprises this December, here). Little Women, now showing at the Jungle Theater, is one more jewel to add to this collection and a beautiful piece that any fans out there need to explore.

Little Women tells the story of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, as they grow up during the Civil War. Each of the March sisters has a different characteristic - Meg, strength and mothering; Jo, independence and drive; Beth, kindness and sweetness; Amy, tradition and a concern for reputation and public opinion. By focusing a big book on their "little stories" we learn quite a lot about life in the U.S. in the mid-19th century, and even more about what it was like to be a women and / or relatively poor. The March sisters lead us by example with their care for ending slavery, carving out space for women in society, and demonstrating an innate charity towards their immigrant neighbors. I read (and loved) this book as a child, but I have to admit that I'd forgotten several details and the story is remarkably fresh and contemporary in this staged version. There have been a few mild changes made to play up certain dynamics in the original text, especially those around gender roles. I think even purists should be ok with them, and I really enjoyed the new insights into an otherwise familiar story that this renewed perspective provided me.

Part of the vitality of this particular Little Women is due to the delightful cast, who features a treasure trove of local actresses and a warm chemistry that perfectly mimics that of a home of girls (I am the oldest in a family of four girls so trust me - they really got that dynamic right). C. Michael Menge was my runaway favorite as Jo March. I always loved and identified with Jo, and Menge delivers a deliciously spunky performance that is the beating heart of this show. Michael Hanna's amorous performance as Laurie is a perfect foil to Menge's more masculine energy as Jo, illuminating the confines created by traditional gender roles and shedding new light on his character (one I never liked much in the books). The rest of the ensemble is just perfectly cast and really delineates between the unique traits of each character: Christina Baldwin is the ultimate mother as Marmie; Christine Weber has a stoic optimism as big sister Meg; Isabella Star Lablanc absolutely radiates placidity as the fragile Beth; and Megan Burns is deliciously, horrifically selfish as the bombastic Amy.

On the production side, it's a tight ensemble effort; hats off to Sarah Rasmussen for assembling such a rock star team and communicating such a crystal clear vision for this show. From the second the show opens we are IN the March home, swept away to the 1860s with nary a gloomy cobweb in sight. The costumes (designed by Rebecca Bernstein) are kept to one or two changes per character, as befitted the March's economic status. They are period appropriate and so much fun, each saying just as much about the character as the performance itself. The set is simple, and Chelsea Warren's design radiates the warmth and well-worn comfort of the March home. The lighting by Marcus Dillard is equally warm and inviting, and the sound design by Sean Healey gives us access to the full range of the March girls' emotions.

Little Women is remarkable for several reasons: it's still one of the best known books by a female author of the time (I recently learned that a translated version is still taught in France today!); it is unapologetically abolitionist and feminist in an era when it wasn't very easy or popular to be either of those things; and I would classify it as a true female bildungsroman that helped define a genre for generations of subsequent female authors.

This production is such a great example of many good things, but I have especially been ruminating on the importance of context and imagination when it comes to interpreting and envisioning stories. With such a rich text as this there are so many gems of wisdom and insight to be found, considered and learned from. If I'm entirely honest, I wouldn't have thought Little Women worth re-reading until I saw this lively new production that reminded me how much context I missed when reading it as a child. I've now been inspired to step even further into Louisa May Alcott's world, reading the lesser-known sequel Little Men and some of the rest of her impressive bibliography. It also reminded me how many great stories women author that never get the credit they deserve. As much as I love (and I TRULY love) Jane Austen, can't we start adapting some of the other great female writers for stage and film? Louisa May Alcott stands with a treasure trove of other ladies of that era such as Harriett Beecher Stowe, Olive Schreiner, Evelyn Nesbitt, Ella D'Arcy and so very many more who deserve to see their day in the sun just as much as the George Shaws, Mark Twains, Herman Melvilles and Oscar Wildes.

As Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen says, "Literature is alive. And it belongs to all of us." I couldn't have said it better myself. This adaptation of Little Women positively teems with life and warmth and joie de vivre, and you are certain to leave the theater feeling better about the world than when you entered (which is quite a feat these days). It's like a cozy fall sweater that you never want to take off. Treat yourself to this lovely little show before it closes on October 21. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

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