Three months after it closed at the Marian Theatre in Santa Maria, the PCPA Theaterfest production of Little Women, the Broadway Musical opened Thursday at the Festival Theater in Solvang for a two-week run.
Based on the beloved novel by Louisa May Alcott, with a book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, Little Women, the Broadway Musical is directed by Roger DeLaurier, with musical direction by Callum Morris, choreography by Michael Jenkinson, sets by DeAnne Kennedy, costumes by Judy Ryerson, lighting by Jennifer “Z” Zornow and sound by Elisabeth Rebel.
The production stars Karin Hendricks (Jo), Andrew Philpot (Professor Bhaer), Brittney Monroe (Amy), Sarah Girard (Meg), Renee Wylder (Beth), Elizabeth Stuart (Marmee), Michael Tremblay (Mr. Lawrence) and Scott Fuss (Laurie).
Alcott’s novel was published in 1868-1869 and was immediately and permanently popular. Its two sequels also sold well. Unlike Uncle Tom’s Cabin and many other famous American novels of the 19th century, Little Women seems never to have been dramatized — perhaps because no theater company wanted to have all those young actors staying up past their bedtimes. There have been, to date, at least five films made of the novel, of which Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version is a standout. But the 2005 musical version by Knee, Howland and Dickstein seems to be the first time the book has been staged. And a very tuneful, amusing staging it is.
The novel’s popularity has survived some radical changes in the American psyche. (Readers tend now to want Jo to marry Laurie, and are baffled at her decision to marry a middle-aged — foreign! — intellectual.) But Alcott was a feminist, as Harriet Beecher Stowe was an abolitionist, and her feminism becomes more obvious with each passing decade. She was a champion of the individuality and independence of women, and several historians have proposed that Little Women did more for the liberation of American women than all of the speeches and essays of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony put together.
To say that the novel is autobiographical is accurate, so far as it goes, but it is not to be taken as straight history of the Alcott family. Louisa May ultimately did have to take over the running and feeding of her large family of siblings. Her father, Bronson Alcott, though he enjoyed the friendship and patronage of the intellectual giants of his time — Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau — was hopeless as a provider or arbiter, and her mother was more devoted to her charity work than to her own children.
Bronson was, not to put too fine a point on it, a blowhard and a charlatan. Once Little Women was published, in any case, they no longer faced starvation and ruin — which had been a real possibility before, thanks to Bronson’s reckless improvidence.
In his amazing literary history of the 1890s, The Mauve Decade, Thomas Beer devoted the first chapter, “The Titaness,” to Louisa May Alcott, and he opens with a startling scene involving the Bronson ménage — in a crisis. Not nearly as endearing as the family is portrayed in Alcott’s novel, it is probably much closer to the life as they lived it:
“They laid Jesse James in his grave and Dante Gabriel Rossetti died immediately. Then Charles Darwin was deplored and then, on April 27, 1882, Louisa May Alcott hurried to write in her journal: ‘Mr. Emerson died at 9 p.m. suddenly. Our best and greatest American gone. The nearest and dearest friend Father has ever had and the man who helped me most by his life, his books and his society. Illustrious and beloved friend, good-bye!’ So she made a lyre of yellow jonquils for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s preposterous funeral and somehow steered Bronson Alcott through the dreary business until he stood beside the coffin in the damp cemetery and mechanically drawled out the lines of a dire poem. Under the shock the tall old idler was a mere automaton with a bloodless face that startled watchers as he stepped back from the grave into which his one importance sank. Emerson was going for him! He was losing his apologist, his topic. His fingers fell on the shoulder of a little boy who had pressed forward to see and the grip became so cruel that Louisa saw and her hoarse voice rose in the hush: ‘Pa! Let go! You’re hurting Georgie’s arm!’ But her father could hear nothing. She stooped and wrenched the child’s arm free.”
Little Women will play at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday through July 1 and Tuesday, June 26, at the Festival Theater in Solvang, 420 Second St. For single tickets ($31 to $35) and show times, call the box office at 805.922.8313, or click here for more information.