Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 publication Little Women has attained classic status as a novel as well as being reinvented for screen several times over the years, most recently as the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder. In light of the popularity and familiarity of Alcott’s bittersweet ‘coming of age’ tale, it seemed certain one day to find its way to the Broadway stage in a musical adaptation, a vision realised in 2005 with music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein (book by Allan Knee).
Loosely based on Alcott’s own family, Little Women follows four sisters through their New England upbringing, seeing Meg to motherhood, Amy to marriage, and Jo – a tomboy with a passion for writing stories – to success as a published author. Set in the Civil War era, the principal plotline is interspersed in the Broadway adaptation with onstage enactments of excerpts from one of Jo’s fictional blood-and-guts melodramas, for which members of the cast adopt ancillary roles.
Given the emotional breadth encapsulated by the musical, not to mention the demands placed on the principals with only limited support from the chorus, it was an ambitious choice for the last production given by final-year Professional Diploma students of Guildford’s Performance Preparation Academy (even if two alternating casts were used). Nonetheless, the performers rose to the challenge admirably, and Gerry Tebbutt’s effective direction ably exploited the more comic moments by way of providing welcome relief from the heavier aspects of the drama.
The show was stolen, quite rightly, by (in Cast One) Carys Swanton and her first-rate performance as Jo, the principal protagonist and the character corresponding to Alcott herself. Talitha Rye, Paris Richards and Kelsey Morgan Brazier, as the remaining girls of the March family, cohered well as a group but similarly excelled as individuals. Brazier portrayed youngest sibling Amy’s more truculent moments perfectly, while the tragic episode of Beth’s passing was played sensitively by Swanton and Richards without being over-exploited.
While Little Women: A Broadway Musical centres around Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, cast members shone in supporting roles as well. Matthew Hobbs and Norton James were equally endearing as German émigré Professor Bhaer and Mr Lawrence, the ill-tempered grandfather who finds an unlikely friend in Beth. Strong performances were likewise delivered by Kara-Ami McCreanor (the runner-up in the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Competition 2013) as the family matriarch, Marmee, and by Amelia Dennehy as the privileged Aunt March.
There were moments at which the performance was not perfect, including one or two issues of balance, notably in the charming and beautifully performed duet, ‘Off to Massachusetts’, between Beth and Mr Lawrence. Overall, however, the show was both enjoyable and engaging, and the standing ovation it received was certainly well-deserved.