Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Little Women is a classic of American literature that has seen a multitude of television and film adaptations and contemporized graphic novels.
Locally, you can see the Purdue University Fort Wayne Department of Theatre put on the 2001 stage musical version when Little Women: The Musical opens Friday, April 14, at Williams Theatre and runs through Saturday, April 22.
Setting the scene
For the final production of the 2022-23 PFW season, director John O’Connell has nothing but praise for his cast which consists of theater students, a music therapy student, and a recent theater alum.
“The music is incredible and I am fortunate to have a cast of some young women with extraordinary voices to play the roles of the March sisters and their mother,” he said.
O’Connell said the lyrics help drive the plot of the story.
“In one particular instance, a proposal of matrimony comes in a song, and the next time we meet those two characters they are pregnant with twins,” he said.
The music doesn’t follow a linear story, instead jumping back and forth through time. The time warps are helpfully illustrated through different period costumes designed by Austin Rausch.
The show opens in 1865 with Jo March, an aspiring writer who is frustrated by her failed attempts to get her blood-and-guts stories published. Her friend Professor Bhaer suggests she write something “better” and more meaningful.
The story then flashes back to several years earlier, when the younger Jo is still at home with her three sisters — Meg, Beth, and Amy — and their mother. Their father is serving as a chaplain in the Civil War, and the women do their best to hold onto their hope of his safe return.
The musical features several moments that will be familiar to fans of the novel and films: spiteful little sister Amy burning Jo’s manuscript, sensitive Beth’s illness, older sister Meg’s marriage, and Jo cutting her hair to pay for her mother’s trip to visit their wounded father.
Throughout the show, the women grow and mature, learning that strength comes from being true to oneself and supporting the ones you love.
Relating to characters
O’Connell said the musical centers around Jo without fleshing out the rest of the sisters as much as the book and some films do.
Jo is a free thinker with a strong imagination and the dream of making a living as a writer in a man’s world.
Aspiring actor Olivia Albertson, who plays Jo in this production, relates to her character’s passion and persistence as she dreams of attaining something many would consider unattainable.
Albertson has taken inspiration from Jo’s philosophy of not living up to the expectations of others.
“It’s made me really think about how I live my own life, and I have started to stop engaging with people and things that make me unhappy,” Albertson said.
Jo’s nemesis is the youngest March sister, Amy, played by Wren Rogers.
“Amy is the type of character everybody loves to hate, and that’s really nerve-racking to hear when you portray such a character,” Rogers said.
In studying the text, however, Rogers has come to realize that although Amy is often perceived as spoiled and petulant, she’s actually just as persistent as Jo in her own pursuit of an artistic career. Rogers finds this an inspiring character trait.
“If you believe in your worth and go after your dreams, you will find success, whether grand or minor,” she said. “I’m extremely thankful I get the opportunity to bring a new light to her.”
The production has tested and stretched the abilities of this talented young cast. Evan Snaufer, who plays Meg’s love interest, John Brooke, had never heard of Little Women when he auditioned, but he has grown to appreciate the message of the story.
He’s also embraced the challenges of his role, which marks his first time as an onstage love interest.
He said his biggest challenge has been embodying the “1860s mindset” in terms of mannerisms, speech patterns, and body language. To help in that aspect, O’Connell said, “The women are rehearsing in long rehearsal skirts and shoes, and the men are all in rehearsal coats and shoes.”
Other performers have found the music itself to be somewhat demanding. The songs sung by Jo, a role originated on Broadway by Sutton Foster, are written in a range that Albertson isn’t used to singing in, and she has worked to increase her vocal power.
Jackson McKinney, who plays Jo’s love interest, Professor Bhaer, has enjoyed learning to act through song.
“A lot of my character’s text contains much subtext,” he said. “That has helped me build the skill of identifying what my character is trying to say without saying it and then attempting to portray that through my acting.”
The timeless story is even more timely today, O’Connell pointed out.
“We’ve just gone through several years of loss and a vast array of restrictions that kept us apart because of the pandemic,” he said. “In Little Women, they are missing their father who is off fighting in the Civil War and Jo has to come back home from New York City because her sister Beth is ill and needs her help. The sense of ‘togetherness’ they need is something we can all relate to.”
Gloria Squire, who plays the mother, Marmee, points out that the story has often been cited as feminist, given the strength of the women in overcoming the obstacles of the gender politics of the time. However, it’s also a gentle reminder to accept the diversity of others.
“The little women who compose the March family learn to appreciate each other’s differences and flaws,” Squire said.
Although familiar with the book and various interpretations since childhood, Squire said she has found “a new perspective (on the story) that comes with age and experience. As an adult, I understand these perspectives because I have actually lived them.”
A mother herself, Squire brings her own past emotional traumas to the role.
“I have always held the attitude that I must remain strong for my children,” she said. “Marmee has far more patience than I do, but as I have aged, I continuously strive to become a better mother, a better wife, and a better, more loving, and more compassionate member of society.”
With beautiful period costumes, heartfelt music, extraordinary singing talents, laughter and tears, action sequences, and a timeless story about individuality, following your dreams, and the power of unconditional love, Little Women is a family-friendly musical that promises something for all ages.
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