Louisa May Alcott’s famous semi-autobiographical novel “Little Women” was influential for the many likeable characters it introduced to readers and its message of female empowerment. Those key features are kept intact in San Diego State’s production of the Broadway musical adaptation.
Jo March (Kati Donovan) is a tomboy who dreams of being a respected writer and lives with her mom and three sisters in 19th century New England. She gets along relatively well with her family, but wants to become an independent individual who can make something of herself. Each sister faces trials and tribulations as they undergo the transition from young adults to mature women. All of them have to make life-changing decisions and determine what they want out of life.
There is a large cast comprised mostly of students in the Master of Fine Arts Musical Theatre program. Donovan captures Jo’s fun and rebellious personality and has several memorable songs such as the Act I finale “Astonishing.” Cassie Abate plays Beth March, an innocent character who shines with Donovan in a quiet duet, “Some Things Are Meant To Be.” Bethany Elkin plays the eldest sister, Meg, an attractive and sophisticated soul who has romantic chemistry with her tutor, John Brooke (Roger Ellis). Michelle Tymich’s portrayal of the youngest sister, Amy, is deliberately unsympathetic, but she does generate moments of compassion as she grows up.
As wonderful as these performances are, spectators should pay close attention to Susan DeLeon’s interpretation of the loving mother, Marmee. When she acts, every mannerism feels completely authentic, from her physical movements to her line delivery. During Marmee’s two ballads “Here Alone” and “Days of Plenty,” she naturally changes her vocals from light operatic to intensely belting out a melody. What makes her role even more of an accomplishment is that during these songs, she has to act out Marmee’s complex emotions simultaneously.
Allan Knee’s version is moving, even if the first act has a few corny lines of dialogue. He includes all major plot points of the original story, while moving things along at a natural pace. When events become more bittersweet in the second act, Knee treats dark situations not as full-blown tragedies, but with a sense of sad acceptance. There is also well-earned humor and lively writing to lighten the mood and create scenes of uplifting hope.
Director Brandon Joel Maier seems to have a way with actors. He allows practically all members of the cast to stand out, whether the big or small role requires dancing, singing or acting. Maier has deep respect for the original production itself, yet he has created a unique version that stands well on its own.
“Little Women” is a great way to end a powerful season of plays and musicals at SDSU. It is family friendly entertainment with a quite touching storyline.
More information about “Little Women” can be found at theatre.sdsu.edu.