The last time I saw the musical “Little Women,” I sat in a cavernous theater and wondered why I was rather unimpressed and ambivalent about the show. But it wasn’t until after seeing the thoroughly enjoyable opening night performance at The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter that my long-standing questions were answered.
The plot is based on the beloved semi-autobiographical novel by Louisa May Alcott, which tells the story of the four March sisters whose father is away serving as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War. While Allan Knee’s adaptation strings together many of the book’s major plotlines, there’s little drama or conflict to move the story forward. (Or hold your attention.) Rather, the heart of the story rests in the relationships that exist among its many characters – and that’s what got lost in that big-theater production I attended lo those many moons ago.
But in his directorial debut at The Encore, local favorite Steve DeBruyne understood the material’s strength and crafted an intimate production that transcends the script and the serviceable, yet mostly forgettable tunes that accompany it.
The plot’s central character is the eldest March sister, Jo, a strong-willed pre-feminist who “yearns to travel and write great books.” The opening finds her as a 19-year-old pursuing her dreams in New York City, while flashbacks in the first act take her back home to Concord, Massachusetts three years earlier. It’s a role that requires an actress who can convincingly play both a youthful tomboy and, later, a more mature woman – and Katie Hardy accomplishes both exceedingly well. Her transition from child to adult is well defined, and her interactions with her sisters are thoroughly believable.
So too are the actresses who play her sisters. Especially notable, though, is Madison Deadman, who is perfect as the bratty youngest sibling Amy. But she’s even finer as the cultured young woman who returns from Europe with surprising news: She’s engaged. (To whom is also a surprise!)
DeBruyne’s eye for talent extends to his supporting cast as well.
Beautifully voiced Sonja Marquis excels as the matronly Marmee, while Anne Bauman’s Aunt March exquisitely captures the Victorian Age’s strict view of womanhood and their role in society. (Her double casting as boarding house owner Mrs. Kirk isn’t quite as successful, however; there is little differentiation between the two characters.)
Of the men, Rusty Mewha (who only recently joined the cast), once again proves his versatility as the prim-and-proper Professor Bhaer – a total turnaround from his recent starring role in “The 39 Steps” at Meadow Brook Theatre (which closed the weekend prior). His musical number with Hardy – “Small Umbrella in the Rain” – is a show highlight.
And what has to be the most energetic performance belongs to Sean Widener. “You’re a lunatic,” Jo says to her best friend Laurie, and DeBruyne allows Widener to explore the boundaries of his character. With a rubbery body and a face that telegraphs Laurie’s every thought, it’s a brave performance that stands out for all the right reasons.
DeBruyne’s pacing is fine throughout – including the many quick scene changes the story requires. That’s aided by Leo Babcock’s two-level set that needs only a few minor adjustments to switch locations.
Another strong point are the period-perfect costumes by Colleen E. Meyer. But the lighting design by Daniel Fowler on opening night proved problematic: They popped on at odd times, lit spaces that weren’t used for significant periods of time, and oftentimes didn’t enhance the storytelling.
And while the four-piece band was adequate to handle the score, it needed more than two keyboards, reeds and percussion to bring it fully to life.
All in all, however, DeBruyne’s inaugural directorial effort is an entertaining night at the theater – one which I suspect will be especially loved by the little women of all ages who grew up on Alcott’s universal coming-of-age tale!
The Encore Musical Theater Company, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 27. $25-$28. 734-268-6200. http://theencoretheatre.org