Review: LITTLE WOMEN THE MUSICAL at Brown Paper Box Co.

Review: LITTLE WOMEN THE MUSICAL at Brown Paper Box Co.

Pictured: Tessa Dettman and Sarah Ford. Photo by Zach Dries.

By Elizabeth Ellis

It’s been 150 years since the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s family drama Little Women, which quickly became a critical and commercial success, and a classic of American literature. The highs and lows and adventures of the four March daughters of Concord, Massachusetts are imprinted on so many of our minds that they feel less like characters from fiction and more like old friends from childhood. This familiarity can act as both a blessing or a curse: we know the sisters so well that we can’t watch a film nor a stage production based on the book and leave our impressions of the family at the door. If, however, you can set aside your preconceived notions and head over to the Strawdog Theatre to see Brown Paper Box Co.’s energetic production of LITTLE WOMEN THE MUSICAL, you’ll enjoy some fine work from some of Chicago’s excellent musical theatre artists.

Originally created as a vehicle for the considerable talents of Broadway favorite Sutton Foster, LITTLE WOMEN focuses far more than the book on second sister Jo (played with earnest and gusto by Tessa Dettman). With her as the protagonist, the storyline evolves and shows us Jo as a would-be writer determined to break free from the loving confines of her family and explore the world. Jo finds stories of “blood and guts” far more intriguing to write — and potentially profitable — than the usual honey sweet topics that appeal to most ladies of that era. Jo still finds it a challenge to behave as a demure young woman like most of her contemporaries. Eldest sister Meg (the sweet Andi Sharavsky), who hopes to become a wonderful wife and mother; self-absorbed third sister Amy (the playful Kim Green); and youngest sister, quiet homebody Beth (the endearing Sarah Ford) all seem to be content with their lives, where Jo wants so much more.

Their mother, Marmee (the lovely Denise Tamburrino) keeps home and hearth together, but not without personal and financial struggles. The wealthy and haughty Aunt March (a pitch-perfect Jenny Rudnick) at first offers Jo employment as her reader, and later, various forms of assistance comes through wealthy neighbor Mr. Laurence (a curmudgeonly Ken Rubenstein), his grandson Laurie (the excellent Will Kazda), and his tutor, Mr, Brooke (the engaging Dwayne Everett). Laurie and Mr. Brooke also offer romance for Amy and Meg, respectively. After Jo moves to New York City to act as a governess and write her way into fame and fortune, she meets up with a gentle German teacher in her boardinghouse, Professor Bhaer (a charming Matthew Fayfer), and the two fall in love. Aunt March leaves her mansion to Jo and the professor to transform into a school.

Directors Stephanie Rohr and M. William Panek ably guide their cast through the alley space, though some intimate moments get lost in the staging. Jeremy Hollis’ set, with steamer trunks used as set pieces and props, easily recreates the close feeling of an old attic. Accompanist Justin Harner provides exemplary musical support throughout the entire show, and several musical numbers stand out. “Five Forever” has the girls bring Laurie into the family as an official brother (until he later becomes a brother-in-law), “Days of Plenty” displays Marmee’s strength and will to a bereaved Jo, Meg and Mr. Brooke sweetly fall for each other in “More Than I Am,” and the showstopper “Astonishing” is Jo’s declaration of who she is and will become.

Part of the difficulty with adapting a beloved story so rich in detail and perspective into a musical is that some crucial elements will have to be left behind, or the finished piece would be four hours long. The role of Mr. March as a pastor, the March family’s adherence to the transcendentalist movement, the overshadowing and harrowing influence of the Civil War: all of these are barely touched on, if at all. While these edits streamline the production, they also produce the feeling of speeding through the story. With the exception of a few strikingly moving scenes, like Jo and Marmee comforting each other after Beth’s passing, we don’t get to see most of the deeper emotional moments really land, and that’s a loss. However, this is a production worth seeing to revisit a beloved story and the work of some wonderful artists.

LITTLE WOMEN THE MUSICAL runs through February 9. For more information visit brownpaperbox.org.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.

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