By Kimberly Harper
For some of us, the only real association we have with “Little Women” is being forced to read the 19th century Louisa May Alcott novel in high school English class. And if that’s the case, maybe the 1994 movie wasn’t enough to redeem the story in your estimation. Or maybe I’m projecting. But regardless, even if you weren’t a fan of the original, you’re going to love the musical. Especially when Ocean State Theatre has done such a bang up job of collecting pure talent from the set designers to every single person on the stage.
As a quick recap, the story takes place (mostly) in Massachusetts, during and after the Civil War. It’s told through the eyes of Jo, the second oldest of four March sisters, who is an aspiring writer, total tomboy and someone who craves adventure. From eschewing traditional gender roles to insisting her voice be heard, Jo is strongest when she is buoyed by her three sisters, Meg, Beth and Amy, and their stories weave together in such a way that we get to know all of them. Meg is the romantic. Beth is sweet. Amy is the youngest and pretty spoiled, but in a sympathetic way. They’re led by Marmee, effectively a single mother with their father off serving in the War, and aided by their snobby and refined Aunt March. There’s love, action, and just a little gore (mostly through Jo’s fiction), all set to some of the most beautiful music Broadway has given us recently.
Honestly, all of the performances in this production are beyond good. Tess Jonas as Jo is truly phenomenal. She infuses Jo with a physical awkwardness that makes it clear all things feminine do not come to her character naturally. Her comedic timing is spot on (as is Alison Novelli’s as Meg) and her voice is strong and resonant. She, alongside Staci Morin as Aunt March, made the number “Could You?” one of the most entertaining in Act 1. The song “Astonishing” is also well served by Jonas’ talent. Morin, by the way, may have one of the smaller roles in the show, but her performance makes it one to remember. She also plays Irish maid Mrs. Kirk in Act 2. Michael Luongo, who plays family friend Laurie, is a very gifted singer. On press night, there were some issues with his microphone that led to its being turned off during one of the biggest numbers in the first act. No matter, when he couldn’t stand near enough to Jo to play off her mic, he simply turned to the audience and hit the back wall with a powerful, beautiful voice. Classical theater training to the rescue again. Amiee Turner is a strong force as Marmee, and her voice is especially well suited to the Act 2 number “Days of Plenty.”
At first I thought the youngest sisters wouldn’t have much to do vocally, but that turned out to be untrue, especially for the character Beth. Bryn Martin has a sweet, clear voice that’s well suited to the character. She will absolutely be one of your favorites, for better or worse (no spoilers just in case you managed to hit 2017 without knowing the story). And even though you’ll want to shake bratty Amy sometimes, Abigail McMahon makes her lovable enough that you sympathize with her plight of feeling overlooked.
The set is minimalist and stands outside of any given time period. Scenic designer Cliftin Chadick hits a home run with a stage that is draped in beautiful fabric, which reflects the lights in such a way that the whole space can be bathed in color to evoke strong mood.
Overall, this is a good show with a very strong talent base. Fans of classical musical theater, as well as those who prefer something more contemporary, won’t want to miss this one before it closes. Director Ethan Paulini has given us something to smile about with “Little Women.”
Little Women: The Musical runs through March 19 at Ocean State Theatre Company, 1245 Jefferson Boulevard, Warwick. Tickets may be obtained by calling 401-921-6800 or by visiting oceanstatetheatre.org.