Encore Michigan

‘Little Women’ a big success by One Off Productions

Review July 31, 2019 David Kiley

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Little Women: The Broadway Musical is a production whose writers knew it was best to stick to the original material and not veer off.

One Off Productions, a new company, tackles the classic 19th century story written by Louisa May Alcott, and adapted into the musical by Mindi Dickstein, Jason Howland and Allan Knee.

It is a story that enjoys universal and long-standing appeal. Marmee (Elizabeth Mitchell) is a mother of four daughters–Jo (Sarah Mills), Amy (Wendy Cave), Meg (Morgan Gagnon) and Beth (Rebecca Timmons)–each headstrong in their own way. Living in Massachusetts, each is bristling with the Civil War on, their father is away working as a pastor on the battlefield, and each has a love and restlessness that are complicated.

The title may be confusing or even off-putting for people not in the know about the story and the time. Alcott was drawing on the Dickensian term of “Little Women,” which defines the period in a young woman’s life where childhood and elder childhood were “overlapping” with young womanhood.

Jo is the writer in the family, and she is seen as embodying Alcott in her own family and upbringing. There is a wealthy family next door, and the scion, Laurie (short for Lawrence) is besotted by Jo. Jo, however, forms an attachment to Professor Bhaer, the New York representative of a publishing house to whom she has submitted her story.

The music in Little Women does not have songs that stay in your head . But each song feels appropriate to the story. Elizabeth Mitchell is a perfect Marmie, and her lovely vocals are more than up to what are sometimes difficult measures. She shines particularly in “Days of Plenty,” and “Here Alone.”

Sarah Mills is the co-director and co-founder of the company, and her Jo is vibrant, assertive, and Mills does a good job of communicating the transition that Joe is going through as a Little Women–she’s in process of leaving Marmee’s nest, but not quite there in the earlier parts of the play. Rebecca Timmons as Beth also exhibits solid vocals and plays the daughter who will never get to leave home with sadness that doesn’t bring us down until the story gives us real permission to tear up.

Cave as Amy, the youngest, is a nasty piece of work as she does the unthinkable to her sister’s written story–any writer would bristle and wonder if they could forgive her. But Cave does just as splendid a job of redeeming herself, helped along by the forgiving nature of Jo.

Bradley Lieto plays a convincing Laurie, anxious to win over Jo, but ultimately having to give up and let his heart re-awaken for another, who is also pretty close to home.

The music ensemble, led by Rebecca Biber is very sharp and honed. Costumes for this period piece, by Emily Betz, were very accurate, right down to a seriously ugly dress worn by Jo–her one dress it seems–that nonetheless seems just right for the character who is more concerned with her mind and writing output than batting her eyes at even the man she loves.

A very solid cast, co-drected by Suzanne Willets Brooks, is rounded out by Jon-Luke Martin, Michael Cuschieri, J. Michael Morgan and Julia Fertel.

There are interwoven plots of the family’s genteel poverty, Jo’s quest, Laurie’s love, Amy’s jealousy, Aunt March’s condescension, Marmee’s pain of separation from her husband and worried about keeping the family fed and safe. Maybe because of the time, it feels like the story could be a TV series, and not just a story that has been adapted many times into film and for stage.

Sometimes it seems like period pieces like Little Women hardly have a place any more except in theater aimed at young people or families. But when it is presented well by a group of talented and thoughtful actors, it is nice to get lost in a different time and place that seems so far away from headlines, social media and smartphones.