5/7/2021 LITTLE WOMEN: THE BROADWAY MUSICAL Pumphouse Players
THE CHAIN ARMOR OF PROPRIETY
Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, Little Women, is a study in contradictions. Arguably the work that put her on the literary map, she chafed at the characters and story, writing in her journal after publishing its second sequel that she wished an earthquake would “swallow Jo’s school and bury it and its residents so deeply no archeologist would ever find it.” Glamorizing the very real poverty that plagued her family (due chiefly to her father’s religious zealotry), she hated the idolization her contemporaries placed on “artistic endeavor,” preferring instead the “blood and thunder tales” she published under the pseudonym “A.M. Bernard,” tales which (more or less) put food on her family’s table, writing in her journal, “I can’t afford to starve on praise, when sensation stories are written in half the time and keep the family cozy.”
One of the joys of the 2005 Musical (book by Allan Knee, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and music by Jason Howland) based on the novel is that we see some of her more lurid stories dramatized, stories that allowed her female protagonists to enjoy the independent life her publisher (and readers) would not permit her to give Jo March. Another joy is that the “married and happily ever after” ending of the book is left open-ended and ambiguous, giving the musical Jo more agency in her own future.
To be perfectly honest, I have never actually read Alcott’s original novel, nor could I begin to tell you what happens in its sequels (1871’s Little Men and 1886’s Jo’s Boys). But I have seen many of its filmed adaptations and have enjoyed the score to this 2005 musical adaptation since its release. In every retelling, I have been struck by the independence and spirit of Jo March and her sisters and “Marmee.” I have also responded well to its criticism of the mid-19th century social paradigms and restrictions, though I suspect those criticisms were more a product of the eras that produced the adaptations than to the original novel, despite Alcott’s journal showing she herself shared those criticisms.
All of which is a verbose way of confessing my anticipation for Pumphouse Players’ production of the musical, enjoying a live production this weekend as well as a video stream (taped two weeks ago) available through May 16. Of course this is a no-budget non-professional production, so I could provide a snarky list of its shortcomings (untrained voices clashing with professionally produced tracks, ill-thought-through blocking choices, blandly functional set, could-have-been-better videography, by-the-numbers choreographic choices, missed lighting opportunities, clumsy sword play), but that would be totally unfair and, to be honest, pointless.
The bottom line is that I really enjoyed watching this, and even thought some of the performances and choices were better than expected. This production provides a welcome revisit with the March family, and a perfect “Mother’s Day” gift for that older generation who enjoyed the 1994 movie version (with Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and Susan Sarandon).
For the few of you not familiar with the story, let me inset a plot summary here. Jo March is a single writer living in New York City and trying (in vain) to have her stories published. The male-dominated industry won’t even read her manuscripts, advising her to “go home and get married.” But a fellow boarder at her rooming house, Professor Bhaer, takes an interest in her work, and she reads him some of her more lurid stories “Roderigo appears in magnificent splen-door!” She also tells him of her family, her “Marmee” struggling to survive while Father is off being a chaplain for the Union Army, fierce “Aunt March” who insists she become a “lady of society” (maintaining a “Chain Armor of Propriety”), her neighbors (the Laurences), and especially her sisters, Meg who is romantically-inclined to find a husband (ANY husband will do), Amy (the youngest) with artistic ambitions of her own, and the gentle Beth, a skilled pianist who wins (and melts) the hearts of everyone she encounters.
Throughout that winter, the sisters bond and bicker, perform Jo’s stories “for all of Concord to enjoy,” and invite young Laurie to join their band of merry siblings. As expected in a 19th-century story, Laurie develops feelings for Jo, but she prefers to keep him at arm’s length, more a brother than a husband, As winter turns to spring, Marmee must leave to care for their ailing father, Meg falls in love with Laurie’s tutor, Amy goes off on a European Tour with Aunt March, and one of the sisters catches scarlet fever and begins a slow decline (the song “Some Things Are Meant to Be” is a truly heart-rending punch to the gut to viewers who know what’s next). It all ends with a marriage, with an unexpected visit, and with a publisher wanting Jo’s book about her family.
There are some special melodies in this score, particularly the aforementioned “Some things Are Meant to Be.” I also really enjoy the numbers accompanying Jo’s ”Blood and Thunder” stories that open both acts, Laurie’s “Take a Chance on Me,” Beth’s “Off to Massachusetts,” the all-for-one March family march “Five Forever,” and Jo’s Act I closer “Astonishing.” But truth to tell, all the numbers serve the story well, evoking time, place, character, and mood. This is a remarkably well-constructed libretto.
And this cast is especially good at creating a family, an ensemble of characters who “feel” as if they were siblings and friends. Grace Weeks heads the cast as Jo, with fine support given by Christie Lee Fisher (Meg), Caroline Geckler (whose Beth has the finest singing voice of the sisters). Amy was played at two separate ages by El Bern (*younger Amy”) and Mary Grace Elliott (“older Amy”) and the casting was so seamless I didn’t realize they were separate actors and characters. Also impressive vocally were Ann-Marie Thomas (Marmee) and Joshua Rapp (Laurie). Filling out the cast were Cal Silvers as Professor Bhaer, Duane Ellis as Mr. Laurence, Karen Stinard as Aunt March, Matthew Luce as Mr. John Brooke (Meg’s Intended), and Imani Anderson as Mrs. Kirk (Jo’s NYC landlady). The production was directed by Stacey Bern, with a video streaming production team consisting of James D. Lu and Laurel Ann Lowe.
Little Women is a well-loved classic that deservedly sees new life and new adaptations every couple years or so. It is also worth a deeper examination in the light of Alcott’s journal commentaries (and I have every intention of actually reading it some day). This musical wasn’t a big success – it closed after only 137 performances – but it is seeing a healthy post-Broadway life, being a popular favorite of regional and non-professional theatres. Pumphouse’s streamed version is a delight to watch, and I daresay the remaining live performances will be well-worth a visit.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #LittleWomen #PumphousePlayers)