It’s a familiar story, being an American classic, but that doesn’t mean Little Women: The Musical lacks a freshness making it worth watching.
The story centers aroung the March sisters — Meg, Beth, Jo and Amy — the little women of the title. Vowing to always stay together, the storyline follows their growth into adulthood, which ultimately separates them.
Specifically, Little Women centers around Jo, a headstrong, independent aspiting writer. And, with her at the center, any production requires a solid actress to take the lead and set the tone for the show. Thankfully, Erin O’Shea walked into the Quad City Music Guild’s auditions for Little Women: The Musical and landed the role of Jo. While it took a scene or two for O’Shea to warm up to the role, once she was there, she was there! She is fully committed to Jo, and well suited to portray her. O’Shea’s Jo is utterly believable and thoroughly enjoyable to watch, as she throws her entire being into the character. O’Shea does not hold back on the physical demands of the role, nor on the notes. O’Shea is an actress who truly can sing. Her Jo, alone, makes Music Guild’s production worth seeing.
Fortunately, she’s not the only reason this show is worth the price of a ticket. Almost every character is perfectly cast, particularly the March women. Laurel Williams’ Meg is perfectly a bit timid, with a slight awkward shyness. Sarah Walker’s Beth is fluid, natural, arguably the most believable performance of the bunch. And Abbey Donohoe’s Amy is delightfully haughty and naughty with an energy that grabs your attention. Also among the March women, Marmee, portrayed by Dolores Sierra, who gives the character a gentle strength, making her the ideal mother we all wanted.
Not quite as solid, but still good, are Pami Triebel and J. Adam Lounsberry. Triebel’s Aunt March is a bit affected. While I prefer acting in which you can’t tell they’re acting, Triebel’s protrayal actually works, in that her, again, affected approach adding a sense of eccentricity to Aunt March. Lounsberry’s accent is solid, unwaivering (except when he sings). His portayal of Professor Bhaer, while good, lacks a certain chemistry. When he professes his feelings for Jo, it’s a surprise, not in that it’s an unexpected twist, but in that there was no feeling beforehand to express a trueness to his love. And no chemistry in the moment.
Danny White, however, seems entirely miscast as Laurie. Before I proceed, let me be clear. White has tremendous talent. The higher register of his singing is crystal, beautiful. He can sing. And, he can act, though I would categorize him as a singer who acts. There’s nothing wrong with is talent, other than that it doesn’t fit the role of Laurie, in my opinion. While it would help a great deal if he didn’t rush through his lines, but slowed down his delivery, concentrating on diction, I still wouldn’t cast him as Laurie. He’s believable as a best friend, bot not at all a love interest, perhaps because he doesn’t seem fully committed to the love in the relationship. But, I want to be careful here. I am not saying White should stay off the stage. On the contrary, while watching him on stage I ran through a good number of roles I would love to see him portray.
Also worth mentioning is Kathy Lafrenz as The Hag. It’s a small role, but Lafrenze does not approach it as a small actor. She dives wholeheartedly into The Hag, making me wish there were more of her on stage. In fact, every moment she was on stage she was The Hag, not dropping the character for a second, even when exiting in the dimming lights.
And, I must give a nod to Phyllis Lioen’s Mrs. Kirk. Another small role, but Lioen is so delightful, natural in it. I was drawn to her, watching her in each moment, even when the focus was meant to be elsewhere.
One of the biggest surprises to me is the set. This is community theater, after all. And I’ve seen a good number of productions at QCMG that remind me it’s community theater. But, the set of Little Women helps the show rise above it. The performances too, yes, but the set also makes a tremendous difference. It moves from a simple, unnotable boarding room to a grand living room of the March home, which required a long look to take it all in. And the scrim for the attic space! It’s so well painted, I would think it a professional part of the set!
The costumes, too, add to the trueness of the production. Aunt March first appears in a dress so grand and so gaudy. There are several hand-me-down dresses, each of which, appropriately, does not quite fit. I assume it was intentional. If an accident, then certainly a lucky one. My favorite costume, however, is a brown dress worn by Beth. It’s perfectly fitted and looks beyond costume quality. It’s very realistic and could walk off the set and into the real world. Well, if this were the 19th Century. Jo also wears a dress of note, a brown, striped piece worn in the Second Act.
The show itself suffers the typicalness of a musical. It’s high-spirited and delightfully varied in the First Act, but plods a bit through the middle of the Second. I still don’t understand why so many musicals end up with several, similarly melancholy songs in a row in the Second Act, prefering to keep variety in the First. Still, it’s not enough to turn one away from seeing QCMG’s Little Women. Despite not being a tried and true standard (registered as a “not again” in my mind), Little Women should fill the seats. I’ve seen too many QCMG productions that lacked a heart, a soul and, arguably, should’ve been skipped, but packed the house. Little Women is one of the rare QCMG gems that shouldn’t be skipped by any means.
Little Women: The Musical runs July 17, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. and July 20 at 2:00 p.m. at Prospect Park Auditorium in Moline. Tickets are $15 for adults and $9 for children and can be reserved by calling the box office at (309) 762-6610.