Little Women: Park Theatre ****
- Credit: Pamela Raith
With the recent film version - starring Saoirse Ronan - of Louisa May Alcott’s much-loved novel still fresh in people’s minds, expectations of Little Women The Musical will be high.
This production, adapted by Allan Knee and directed by Bronagh Lagan, is impressively faithful to the novel and bristles with energy. Given it's a whirlwind rites-of-passage tale with highs and lows of romantic love, grief, and the struggle for independence, having the March sisters burst into song feels inevitable.
With a lean introduction, the show opens on tomboy Jo’s life in New York as she struggles to fulfill her ambitions as a writer. She’s drawn back home when absent father, a Union Chaplain in the Civil war, falls ill.
We quickly meet the son of their wealthy neighbor, lonely Laurie, ‘Theodore Laurence the Third’ as he tries to impress. Less languid and conflicted than in the book, this Laurie is nerdy rom-com fare - a questionable shift in focus.
Laurie and Jo's burgeoning relationship unfolds on the delightful two-tier set, with cascading books and the suggestion of an idyllic natural exterior, later beautifully rendered through snow projections. Key moments follow: Meg falling in love with Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke; melodramatic Amy’s cruel burning of Jo’s novel, and her return from Europe with Laurie as husband; Jo cutting her hair to fund Marmee’s visit to their father; Jo falling for faltering Professor Bhaer.
Humour is provided by the imperious Aunt March, her post-feminist lessons in courtship delivered with arch precision. Amy’s giddy materialism is rather over-stated as she capers about dolled up in ribbons and lace.
Performed by a quintet perched above the set, the musical score runs nearly continuously. The marching-band number Off to Massachusetts, understatedly played on piano by Beth and Mr Laurence, is particularly effective. Jo and Beth’s heartfelt ballad Some Things Are Meant to Be is memorable, while Laurie and Jo’s duets are a tad Disney.
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The ensemble is excellent with standout performances from Lydia White as Jo and Anastasia Martin as Beth.
Meta-theatrical moments with Jo mirroring the actions of her dramatized fictional characters are a wonderful touch.