I shall be the first to admit that, as an ardent lover of Little Women both in its original beloved novel by Louisa May Alcott and as Greta Gerwig’s recent feminist-charged film adaptation, I was sceptical about the story as a musical. What I couldn’t imagine was the humour and the passion that would carry through the incredibly talented performances from all actors and musicians in Musical Theatre’s production of Little Women, directed by Kit Salter-Kay and Musical director Tom Mitchell. For those who are well-versed in the characters of this story, it is a playful rendition of the humour that lies underneath the serious post-American Civil War setting. However drab and minimal the jarring metal platforms and the oddly painted balconies were, the strength and the skill of all the performances shone through.
Centered around Jo’s narrative, this production was buoyed by the passion and the energy of Tally Soames, whose impressive vocal-range and boyish, assertive striding across the stage embodied the passionate side of Jo March. This translated even in the moments of doubt and sadness, such as in the seaside scene and, later, once Beth has died, there was a renewed passion and attack for her future that was excellently carried out, as well as her playful assertions of her writerly talents and bolstering of the others. The many exaltations of ‘Christopher Columbus!’ (a phrase Jo is reprimanded consistently for, for being unladylike) I felt encapsulated this playful spirit. The amplified humour of the central character sits as an interesting companion to the new seriousness brought out in the recent film.
A commendable mention goes to the excellent stand-ins for Mr Lawrence (Producer Joe Bennett) and Braxon (Eliza Jones) and the show was hardly affected by these last-minute changes. Bennett portrayed a rather more grouchy Mr Lawrence than the benevolent portrayals in adaptations. Yet this made the jaunty duet between Beth (Daisy Fox) and Mr Lawrence more touching as this portrayal was more stern and Mr Lawrence’s affections more hard-fought for. Marmee’s (Becca Heffer) solo song, expressing her fears and doubts without her husband, was a sensitive insight into the private fears that are not usually explored in adaptations. Heffer’s often gentle voice expressed these moments beautifully. It is an interesting point that Mr March is entirely absent throughout this play, linking him more to God as the absent father. Again, this shifts the focus more centrally onto Jo’s progression, which is the driving force of this production. Similarly, the pairing of Amy (Bella Kirkpatrick) and Laurie (James Marsh) seems to make more sense, as they were portrayed with similar exuberant and childishly playful personalities.
The truly embodied character of Aunt March (Caitlin Doyle) was endlessly entertaining. The audience waited with eager anticipation for her sharp, witty quips and Doyle’s impressive, slightly operatic singing voice gave Aunt March the haughty grandeur she epitomises. All accents were incredibly impressive and well-sustained. The ensemble cast (Anthony Adams, Emma Wilcox, Tamara Walborun and Eliza Jones) not only fleshed out the narration of Jo’s dramatic stories, yet also when they sung the contents of Professor Bhaer’s (Sam Spears) letter to Jo; their placement as sort of embodied voices in his head as he struggled with containing his feelings within this letter was a lovely showcase of the incredible talent in the ensemble cast.
I enjoyed how the opening of the second act mirrored the first, but with the dramatised story showing Jo’s progression as a writer with the vignette. Having the other March sisters and Laurie ‘disguised’ in rags to aid the scene not only worked well for the second act, but gave an interesting allusion to Jo being surrounded and supported by her family and it being through them that her stories and her writing has come about. This strong group of women who love and support each other was reinforced through these little touches, as well as the larger moments, similarly to the original story, proving that this is the core of Alcott’s tale.
Despite a well-timed fire alarm neatly interrupting the interval, and a few technical difficulties with mics either being switched off, too low or left on to hear the chatter from backstage, the entire performance was thoroughly enjoyable and the audience were behind the heartfelt, tender love duets that cemented the characters together. Love, in these duets, is exposed in the intimacy between the two characters it is shared. Whether it was the loving duet between Meg (Kiera Leaper) and John Brooke (Tom Panay)-where the audience visibly sighed and the girls in front clasped each others hands at the sweetness-, or the familial, tender love of Beth and Mr Lawrence both sharing their love of music and soothing broken souls, the love duets in this production prevailed. Jo’s love duets cover the whole range, from her final one with Beth on the beach, accepting that she will go, or the one with Marmee, grieving for the loss of a beloved sister. Yet, amidst the sadness, in the final scene, her romantic love duet with Professor Bhaer had the audience audibly cheering them on and eager for Jo to achieve her happiness.
The excellent cast, crew and band created a poignant and highly-skilled production, focused on Jo’s progression, highlighting the humour and the playfulness of the much beloved story.