‘Little Women’: Overflowing with warmth and charm
STONEHAM – When acclaimed choreographer/director Ilyse Robbins approached the Greater Boston Stage Company’s production of “Little Women: The Broadway Musical,” she did it through her own eyes, the eyes of a 12-year-old girl who won a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s iconic 1868 book in a contest sponsored by a Worcester newspaper.
Robbins’ deep love for the work shines through in this production, overflowing with warmth and charm, and the perfect family outing for the holiday season, running though Dec. 23.
The adaptation of Alcott’s work by book writer Allan Knee doesn’t attempt to cover the entire ground of the novel about a poor family’s struggles to survive in their Concord, Mass. home while their patriarch is off serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. But the spirit of the March family, their friends and suitors is alive and well, in large part due to the score by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein.
Any work based on the March clan always begins with the second-oldest sister Jo (Liza Giangrande). “I’ve got a fire in me,” she announces early on, and the fire only grows, fueled by a steady stream of sexist rejections of her work by publishers. Giangrande brings both a big voice and the required outsized personality to the role.
Jo’s literary life at times overshadows life back in Concord, where there is little money, and where hand-me downs and patched dresses are the order of the day
Watching alone over her flock of four daughters is Marmee (Amy Barker), a devoted wife and mother. Besides Jo, the other daughters are Meg (Sara Coombs), the oldest and the “romantic one;” Beth (Abriel Coleman), good-natured and good-hearted with musical talent who tries to please everyone; and Amy (Katie Shults), the youngest, a sometimes impetuous artist who matures thanks to a generous gift.
Robbins has also cast wisely and well in other supporting roles. Robert Saoud, a veteran of many Robbins productions, is aboard as the well-heeled Mr. Lawrence, a once crochety neighbor whose heart is melted by Beth’s kindness and her talent.
His grandson Laurie (Kenny Lee) is clever and charming and becomes the missing son and brother of the family. Laurie’s tutor, Mr. Brooke (Michael Jennings Mahoney) is poor but earnest and kind, which Meg immediately notices. Kevin Patrick Martin shines as Professor Bhaer, a German tutor and friend of Jo who becomes something more, threatening Jo’s vow to “never marry.”
Aunt March (Deanne Dunmyer) is a wealthy widow who has strong views – as Jo finds out – about what makes a lady, although she loves all of her nieces and wants what is best for them.
The novel’s most telling moments in the March household are here, including Jo and Meg’s first dance, the feud between Jo and Amy, and the awkwardness of Laurie’s affections not being returned in kind.
Howland and Dickstein’s score is heartfelt and moving, and the voices are sublime. Barker as Marmee is given two of their best songs and she takes full advantage, with “Here Alone” in Act I as she pines for her husband and then the mournful, haunting “Days of Plenty” in Act II, after the death of the beloved Beth.
Giangrande as Jo gets multiple vocal chances to knock the ball out of the park, with the rousing “Astonishing” first-act finale and then the second-act anthem “The Fire Within Me.”
The score is lovingly and capably performed by a five-piece orchestra led by musical director Matthew Stern.
One of the better musical numbers comes at the beginning of Act II, after Jo has left Concord to find fame and fortune in New York City. It comes in the form of a musical vignette in which Jo acts out a Gothic adventure story she has written in the offices of “The Weekly Volcano Press.”
Other cast members materialize in swashbuckling attire – kudos to costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley — to bring the characters Jo has written about into being, and the number allows the second act to begin with energy and aplomb. You can see why Jo sought to emphasize “blood and guts” writing early on before eventually settling into the home fires of “Little Women.”
“Little Women” is not a dance musical per se but there is movement — especially when the hyperkinetic Jo is on stage — and whenever there is movement or dance, Robbins’ fingerprints and attention to detail are everywhere.
Perhaps you, like Robbins, possess a dog-eared edition of “Little Women” that is still treasured and loved. Know that Robbins has turned her love of the work into something real and warm, that you can touch and feel, and perfect for the holiday season.
“Little Women: The Broadway Musical.” Book by Allan Knee, based on the novel by Louise May Alcott. Music by Jason Howland; lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Directed and choregraphed by Ilyse Robbins. Music direction by Matthew Stern. Scenic design by Shelley Barish. Lighting design by Katie Whittemore. Costume design by Gail Astrid Buckley. Sound design by John Stone. Production stage manager Shauwna Dias Grillo. At the Greater Boston Stage Company through Dec. 23. Greaterbostonstage.org.