Thursday, May 21, 2009

Little Women

I feel pretty good about my review of Little Women, produced by the Humboldt Light Opera and College of the Redwoods, so I'm reproducing it below. I'm not happy with all my reviews, for one reason or another, but this one is okay.

A couple of additions to the historical background: The humorous newspaper article by Louisa May Alcott I refer to, was in the form of a letter she submitted under the name Tribulation Periwinkle to the Springfield MA Republican. It's described and excerpted in the introduction to the new book, American Trancendentalism: A History by Philip Gura (Hill and Wang.) Referring to Concord, MA, she writes: "No gossip concerning this immortal town seems to be considered too trivial for the public." She writes of a new hotel for visitors to "this modern Mecca," eager to see Emerson (who "will walk by at 4 pm") or hear her father, Bronson Alcott, (who will "converse from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m.")

Later in this book, it's mentioned that Bronson Alcott's own book was an account of the education he provided for his daughters. Apparently Emerson was hard put to say anything in its favor.

As it happens, there's a review of several books about Margaret Fuller (mentioned below) in the May 24 issue of the New York Review of Books. Fuller was also educated by her father, and her achievements were substantial. She had read Virgil and Cicero by the age of ten, and Horace, Livy and Tacitus in her teens--all in the original Latin. This level of achievement was unusual, especially for a girl, but not entirely unknown among these New England families. Josiah Quincy, son of the president of Harvard, was reading Virgil by age six. Thomas Wentworth Higginson entered Harvard at 13.

In 1868, Louisa May Alcott created a classic American story that enthralled and inspired generations of (mostly) girls, by writing about aspects of her own life and family—and also by ignoring other aspects.

In Little Women, a mother and four sisters are isolated in a small New England town, dreaming their dreams despite an absent father and poverty that contrasts with the better off characters around them. Actually, Alcott’s family was fairly famous (though comparatively poor). Her father, Bronson Alcott, began and ran a well-known school, and was associated with the liberal thinkers known as Transcendentalists. He took particular pride in educating his daughters, and among Louisa May’s personal teachers were Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. Their presence made Concord (and her own house) a magnet for reporters and tourists, which she herself noted in a satiric newspaper account.

She had strong and accomplished women models as well, including her own mother, an activist for womens’ voting rights and abolition of slavery. Perhaps the most brilliant and independent women of the era, Margaret Fuller, taught for awhile at her father’s school.

But when the publisher of her romance novels (much like Jo’s in Little Women) requested something in another genre—an uplifting book for girls—Louisa May Alcott concentrated a story that transcended its time and place, and elevated creativity from Puritan disrepute to a natural element in moral development. In some of the many stage, screen, etc. versions since, bits of her background were added back. A little got into the 2005 Broadway musical version, currently performed by the Humboldt Light Opera at the College of the Redwoods.

Even more than the novel, the musical emphasizes the quest of second-oldest daughter Jo March to become a writer. Some of her swashbuckling fantasies are acted out on stage (with spirited performances, particularly by Coral Bourne), but her success comes from writing the home truths, and by her devotion to others. Essie Bertain as Jo capably unites the show, maturing before our eyes from the petulant bravado of adolescence to a centered young woman.

The script dramatizes the novel’s most cherished moments, but with so many characters, the other players must make the best use of their brief time on stage. Shaelan Salas is sweet and then steady as the eldest daughter, Meg. As Amy (the youngest), Rachael Fales breaks through with her energy and commitment. Jessica Malone is so perfectly pretty and angelic as Beth, that even if you didn’t know the story and only the conventions of melodrama, you’d be sure she’s doomed. But she’s affecting anyway, with an especially attractive voice. Her duets with Bill Ryder (as the wealthy Mr. Lawrence) and especially her second act duet with Bertain felt to me like the show’s most emotionally effective moments. The final Bertain-Sharkey duet was another high point.

Tyler Rich (Laurie), Tandy Floyd (Marmee), Valerie Bourne (Aunt March) and especially Kevin Sharkey as Professor Bhaer played their important supporting roles well. Since this is an HLO production, directed by Carol McWhorter Ryder, with musical direction (and piano accompaniment) by Sharon Welton, the singing is superior.

Some of the songs are charming, some are Broadway- bombastic, and with so many characters and so much to do (and sing about), plus frequent clamorous scene changes (though the crew was very efficient), the play feels choppy, without dramatic momentum. The costumes, designed by Kevin Sharkey, are dazzling, though I’m not sure how well they support the impression of poverty.

With comic moments in the mix, Little Women is reasonably entertaining for those not already devoted to the story. I can’t speak for devotees—mostly what I recall from watching the 1949 movie on TV with my sisters was getting a little buzz from June Allyson. But maybe all that devotees need to know is that the characters are more contemporary interpretations but still the same March girls, and their favorite scenes are given life, ready to evoke memories and tantalize another generation.

Little Women concludes its run this Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 in the CR Forum Theatre.

No comments: