REVIEW: Little Women - La Habra Theater Guild Production

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

"...Sisters. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em."

It’s not all peaches and cream, even in this family. But for some reason, audiences can't seem to get enough of the March sisters.

Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel about the romantic adventures and sibling bond of the four famous sisters has always worked, whether as a book (1868), TV movie (1978), feature film (1933, ’49, ’94), or the musical theatre version, which officially opened on Broadway in 2005, directed by Susan Schulman.

In either case, the story focuses on the March family — traditional Meg, who dreams of getting married and having children; feisty, opinionated, aspiring writer Jo, who wants to do “all the things;” sweet, selfless, perfectly content Beth who only wants to be surrounded by family, and romantic Amy, the baby of the family…a stunning artist who works hard to be included. And even though they may occasionally fight and argue, the March sisters are always dedicated to sticking close through every disagreement, every hard moment and every year as they all gradually grow up together.

Recently closing their run, La Habra High School Guild presented their 78th offering with this endearing musical, “Little Women,” derived from Alcott’s evergreen novel by the same name. A perfect Valentine outing, the show was performed from February 14 through the 23rd at Pitlockry Hall, the high school’s theater, imaginatively staged and directed by the team of Erika (SCR’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”/TV’s “Criminal Minds”) and Brent (SCR’s “Sweeney Todd”/ “The Sound of Music”) Schindele, enhanced by Brian Johnson’s artistic value, along with inculpable sound and atmospheric lighting, plus Tana Carmichael’s quondam era costumes.

Pulsing with a generous affection for its source material, the action was kept clear and flowing, while a refreshing, familiar songbook of period waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles from Jason Howland provided an overall tapestry, gamely supported by Mindi Dickstein's lyrics.

It's hard not to love the March girls of Concord, Massachusettes, so deeply etched are Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy on the cultural and emotional landscape that they resurface from generation to generation like cherished friends. The theme of family solidarity, plus the light blend of romance and budding feminism depicted through believable characters has kept this quintessential literary standard in the forefront for 150 years.

Watching this extracted shorthand account of four sisters growing up poor but honest during the Civil War is like speed reading Alcott's book in one fell swoop. You glean only the most salient traits of the principal characters, events and moral lessons, but on its own terms, this condensed musical take on this heartwarming classic satisfyingly hits just the right emotional notes.

It really is a lovely story, full of simple charm and delightfully calculated performances, including an entrancing turn by its engaging lead, aspiring film-maker Veronica McFarlane (“The Crucible”), as Alcott's deliciously hoydenish, proto-feminist heroine, Jo. Reacting with impatience to the many limitations placed on women and girls, Jo hates romance in her real life, and wants nothing more than to simply hold her family together.

Intercut with the vignettes in which their family lives unfold are several recreations of the melodramatic short stories Jo writes in her attic studio, and the role is handled with much vigor and gusto. The tomboyish Jo is shown at first in a New York prologue, musically acting out the parts of her blood-and-guts short story for infatuated friend Professor Bhaer (Jeremy Percy), and her landlady Miss Kirk. In "An Operatic Tragedy," the number begins as dialogue and metamorphosizes into the characters of the story coming to life on the upper deck of the stage, while Jo mimics the actors with perfect timing between speaking, singing and lip-synching. Ms. McFarlane, the de facto center of the novel, is a joy to watch. Her rendition of “Astonishing” achieved new heights of theatrical excitement, and her vibrant “Better” and “The Fire Within Me” brought chills to the audience.

Meg (Mercy Thornton), the oldest March sister, always responsible and kind, is the sister who first breaks the pledge of the March girls to be together forever. Meg has charm and looks to match her voice and loves to mother her younger sisters. She has a small weakness for luxury and leisure, but the greater part of her is gentle, loving, and morally vigorous. Mr. Brooke (Joshua Garberg), Laurie’s poor but virtuous tutor, and Meg have a simply beautiful duet together toward the end of Act I as they serenade each other in “More Than I Am.”

Beth, the pianist in the family, is played with sweetness and delicacy by Ashley Esquerra. The considerate and charitable Beth contracts scarlet fever after volunteering to nurse the sick children of her poor, German neighbors and is permanently weakened by the illness, eventually dying. This parallels the life of Louisa May Alcott’s real-life sister, Lizzie, who also died of scarlet fever. Ms. Esquerra’s duet with Jo, “Some Things Are Meant to Be,” is a gentle highlight tearjerker, set against a simulated Cape Cod backdrop.

Amy (Noelle Johnson), the youngest March girl, adores visual beauty and has a weakness for pretty possessions. She is self-absorbed and given to pouting, fits of temper, and vanity, but she does attempt to improve herself, and is selected by Aunt March for a trip to Europe to be refined and cultured. While there, she unexpectedly sees Laurie, and they are soon married. “Aunt March says that accessories are the key to a woman’s success!” says Amy. Her most featured song in the show is her incredible twosome with Laurie in the number, “The Most Amazing Thing.”

Caleb Bates’ Laurie is likable, and he brings boyish appeal to the part. Laurie is the rich boy who lives next door to the Marches and becomes like a son and brother to them. Laurie is charming, clever, and fancies himself a composer, until he realizes that he doesn't quite have the genius necessary to be truly great. In “Take a Chance on Me,” along with the aforesaid “The Most Amazing Thing,” Mr. Bates presented impressive vocal power with a spine-tingling finish.

The sole, welcome note of restraint is sounded by Atalia Zahrndt. In the midst of hyperactivity, Ms. Zahrndt’s Marmee kept a warmly affecting grip on an all-wise, supermom character, infusing the part with grit and impressive strength. When she sang “Here Alone,” while writing a letter to her husband, she powerfully shaped the big notes and caressed the softer ones. Her other exquisite solo, “Days of Plenty,” expressing maternal grief at the loss of her daughter Beth, was also deeply felt.

Allan Knee’s script presents a promising plot element–the vituperative clashes between Jo and the socially conscious, domineering old dragon Aunt March (Katie Christing), which seems as if it should be more explosive, yet fades away with a heartfelt button. Ms. Christing adds just the right degree of acerbity to the role as the rich and etiquette-minded aunt and also doubles in the role of Miss Kirk, Jo’s New York landlady. The duet, “Could You?” by Ms. Christing and Ms. McFarlane was sterling.

Knee also gives a sharp, combative edge to the friendship between Jo and Professor Bhaer, who hides his growing affection for Jo with dueling ripostes. There’s dramatic urgency in their banter, and it’s unfortunate that the love affair is prematurely lopped off early in act two after Jo hurries home to care for sickly Beth. Luckily, that spark seems to reignite later in a beautiful duet finish by Mr. Percy and Ms. McFarlane with “Small Umbrella in the Rain.”

Silas Ten Elshof is a big standout as Mr. Laurence, the neighbor whose cold heart is eventually warmed by the March family, especially Beth, and he takes her death very hard. His duet with her, “Off to Massachusettes” and reprise in Act Two is a catchy tune that you will also be singing in the shower later.

It's tempting to think that the 1860s, when Louisa May Alcott first penned her beloved novel "Little Women," was a simpler time. And, I suppose they were in some ways. Obviously, they didn't have Facebook or smartphones yet.

But it turns out that the struggles of young men and women growing up in that era actually translate quite well to 2019. We still face insecurity. Jealousy. Longing for love and purpose. Conflict. Those timeless issues of youth and family remain just as real today as they were in the late 19th century. Overcoming those kind of insecurities takes charm and personality. Luckily, Alcott's March sisters have personalities that could fill any room, then and now. They remain delightfully full of spunk, bravery and love...very similar to the amazing and talented troupe of thespians at La Habra High School.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

National Youth Arts