Saturday, December 28, 2013

Littler Women

There's something particularly appealing about Little Women. I've only read the book once - I found it a bit long and diffuse - but I've seen all three of the major movie adaptations more often than that. The 1994 version with Winona Ryder in particular seems to me to distill the distinctive essence of the story - a particular combination of the tearfully sad and the toasty warm, unreplicated in this mixture or to this intensity by any other work I know - and so, it turns out, does the 2005 stage musical, at least in the current production by Theatre Works Silicon Valley, which we attended this afternoon.

Requiring even more condensation than a movie, the musical reads like a series of pit stops at highlights of the plot. Important ensemble characters are entirely omitted, and so are critical plot points (the course of Laurie's courtship of Amy is skipped over, and why Jo accepts Prof. Bhaer's proposal after having rejected Laurie's is left unexplained). But, as this is a story of mood and character more than plot, the emotional heft of the songs carries the show. None, with the possible exception of the "Off to Massachusetts" number that Beth and Mr. Laurence sing at the piano together, are close to memorable tunes, but all bear the freight. From Marmee's "Here Alone," in the form of composing a letter to her absent husband near the beginning, on, that warm sad flavor was there at full strength.

The sets and staging, including the appearance of characters from Jo's melodrama fiction (played by the rest of the cast in makeup), were solid and were carried out smoothly, and the acting and singing were all-around excellent. Special points to Matt Dengler as Laurie, who has real stage presence and who, with the help of the abbreviated, somewhat whitewashed script treatment of his character, turned him into a strong, vibrant figure.

Even more points, then, to Emily Koch as Jo. This was the Jo I have always wanted to see. Winona Ryder and Katherine Hepburn are all very well, but this Jo convinced me that, were she around today, she'd be writing fan-fiction stories on the Internet. Big and slightly gauche, with a sitcom frankness of expression dominated by the hard "r" in her accent, she was completely convincing in her depiction of a woman aching for a freedom of action that her times were determined to deny her. Childishly pouting in her early attempts to placate Aunt Marsh (Elizabeth Palmer, an American edition of a dead ringer for Judi Dench), engagingly overenthusiastic while describing her stories, shocked and torn by the vicissitudes of life, even her sisters' engagements, she seemed slightly Aspergerian and more than a little fannish.

This production did not get wildly enthusiastic reviews, but count this as a big thumb up from me.

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