How many times have you read or seen Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women? Or A Christmas Carol, or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? In such a competition, A Christmas Carol is likely to have the most adaptations, but Alcott and Austen can’t be far behind.
When I was a child I read and reread Alcott’s most popular novels, until I discovered Ray Bradbury and decided I had outgrown her. Much later I realized that you never outgrow Alcott’s wisdom, humor and genuine sentiment. In addition to her books, there are stage plays, films, TV or streaming series, opera, ballet, radio dramas, and even anime that reach Little Women fans around the world.
The merits of Alcott’s work are amply evident in the Very Little Theatre’s impressive production of Little Women, the Musical. This lavish show, expertly directed by Kari Boldon Welch, is a splendid choice for inaugurating the renovated theater building as conceived by Eugene architect Otto Poticha.
His design retained the original Quonset hut shape, but it enlarged the backstage areas and installed new seats and accouterments, offering fresh beauty and functionality. The sky-blue velvet curtain and the comfortable seats upholstered in caramel and honey colored tweed are thoroughly upscale. Jutting out from stage right (the audience’s left) is a small orchestra area that doesn’t obscure any of the stage.
The version of Little Women presented at VLT was popular on Broadway, with book by Allen Knee, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein and music by Jason Howland. As far as I know, none of the songs are breakout hits, but all are enjoyable. Many are humorous and at least one, “Some Things Are Meant to Be,” is heartbreaking.
This production was intended to open in March 2020, but like several other shows in town, it had to close after its dress rehearsal due to COVID restrictions. In the current run, seven of the original actors have returned, joined by 11 others, many of whom play multiple roles.
Set during the Civil War, the well known tale invites us into the home of Marmee March and her four daughters, who lead a frugal life in Concord, Massachusetts, while Mr. March has gone to war as a Union Army chaplain. Marmee, as played by Amy Weinkauf, is stoic, dignified and loving.
Much of the action centers on the second daughter, Jo, who desperately longs to be an accomplished writer, partly to help support the family. As played by Morgan James, she is feisty, full of ideas and burning to gain success against all odds. In the meantime, Jo becomes great friends with Laurie (Diego Millan), the lonely but playful grandson of a wealthy neighbor who joins the fun at the March house and becomes a surrogate brother to the girls.
The oldest daughter Meg (Hailey Eckhart) is sweet and sensible. Amy, the youngest (Hadley Weiss), is pretty and spoiled but talented at drawing, and Beth, the third of the four daughters, is shy, musical and sadly doomed to die young of scarlet fever. As played by Sabrina Gross, she sings with a glorious soprano voice that elicits tears from the audience.
VLT veteran and popular local singer Jennifer Sellers steals the show each time she enters as Great Aunt March. Although always dressed in mourning, Sellers is hilarious, with impeccable comic timing.
Other featured actors are Dylan Bunten as Professor Bhaer, Jeff Weinkauf as Laurie’s grandfather, Ross Canales as Meg’s husband and Caroline Cramer as a boarding house owner.
Busy members of the ensemble, playing numerous roles as characters in Jo’s early “blood and guts” stories, are Thomas Weaver, Cydney King, April Oristano, Anna Pearl Johnson, Jonathan Klimoski, Elena Morris and Brooklyn Nesslin. The short melodramatic scenes they enact are insubstantial, but they reveal how Jo’s writing skills develop with maturity.
The fine musical ensemble, directed from the piano by Al Villanueva, features Nancy Anderson, Annika Porter and Richard Johnson.
Kudos to all the designers for gorgeous costumes, set (including two magnificent brocade sofas), lighting and sound during a virtually flawless opening night despite the long line for will-call tickets.
Little Women, the Musical is playing at Very Little Theatre through August 20; times and tickets through TheVLT.com or 541-344-7751.