Little Women

If there is one thing I don’t like, other than over the top musicals, is a feel good Christmastime story.  Ick. I mean, come on! The Strand Theater Company’s version of the Little Women by Louisa May Alcott was adapted and directed by Erin Riley.  An adaption wouldn’t change that fact that it’s the book version of a Lifetime movie.  Hell, Lifetime is probably going to play the movie version from several years ago sometime this Christmas season.  TBH, I went to see this show for three reasons: the stellar cast, my interest in how it would be adapted, and the quality productions that The Strand Theater consistently presents.

If you’ve been on this earth for a little while you already know the general story of Little Women.  It’s the story of the relationship between the March sisters as they grow from young girls to young women in the 19th century: eldest Meg (Elizabeth Ung), tomboy and narrator of the story Jo (Surasree Dee), shy middle child Beth (Katharine Vary) and youngest Amy (Anabel Milton).  They are surrounded by their immediate family Mommy aka Marmee (Kay-Megan Washington), their prickly Aunt March (Kathryn Falcone), their off to war father Mr. March (Bill Brekke), and family housekeeper Hannah (Kathryn Falcone). This wouldn’t be a heartwarming tale without the rich, kind yet misunderstood next door neighbor Mr. Laurence (Bill Brekke), his ward Laurie (JC Payne), and Laurie’s tutor Brooke (Alexander Scally).

I had my suspicions that this cast would be good, but damn!  This production of Little Women oozed with talent.  What did I just watch?  Some of Baltimore’s finest treaded the boards in this production.  I didn’t know where to look. Every actor fit their character to a tee and served up phenomenal performances.  Well done Director Erin Riley for assembling a talented array of multicultural actors to bring your adaptation to life. Each character had their own little quirk which made this production so damn adorable.  In the play, the character Laurie says, “Why are girls so incredibly odd?” Excellent question. I have no idea. There will never be an answer. We complicated boo. Accept it and let it wash over you. That complication is what made these characters come to life on stage, thanks in part by the fantastic performances from the actors.

Anabel Milton played the precocious Amy with so much delight and spark.  I could not stop smiling every time she came on stage. Her expressive face and childlike attempts to be a grown up were fun to watch.  Elizabeth Ung had a mature air about her as the stately Meg March. Elizabeth did beautiful work striking the emotional balance between Meg’s responsibilities as the eldest sister and her yearning for a life of her own.  Kathy Vary, who I think must live at the Strand because she is a constant presence in their productions, was luminous as Beth. She played her sweet as pie with a shy sensitivity. Beth was the heart of the March sisters and Kathy Vary played her with grace and light.  She seemed to float across the stage like an elegant ghost. I was heartbroken to see her go. Surasree Das (Jo) performed as the narrator and writer of the March sister story. I have seen her work around town and she continues to slay in this production. Surasree Das had this essence about her and I could not take my eyes off of her.  Her energy was electric and she exuded emotion in every scene. She became the lively, independent Jo March with her full body movements, clowning and spark in her eye. Jo was extra and I loved how Surasree brought her to life.

The supporting cast was equally talented.  Kay-Megan (Marmee) had a fierce stage presence.  Her ability to access a deep dramatic as well as serve comedic looks was expertly applied.  Kathryn Falcone wore a lot of hats, and voices, in this production. As Aunt March she was so put upon and grouchy that I loved to hate her.  As Hannah she shifted effortlessly to an Irish accent and then threw in a NY accent in the mix as Jo’s landlord in NYC. She was a chameleon on stage.  Alex Scally, who also played multiple characters, was best as the kind and sweet Mr. Bhaer. His slight German accent mixed with loving eyes and soft demeanor made Mr. Bhaer instantly likeable.  Bill Brekke spent a large portion of the play as the neighbor Mr. Laurence. Although he played the character with earnest, I would have liked to see him dig a little deeper into his character. I didn’t get a sense of who Mr. Laurence was at his core.  JC Payne (Laurie) was extremely well suited in his character. I especially enjoyed the chemistry between him and Surasree Das. Their push-pull relationship was enticing to watch. JC Payne was also particularly engaging to watch in the scene where he professed his love for Jo, hoping she wouldn’t break his heart.  It was like watching a master class in vulnerability on stage. Overall, the most noticeable thing about this ensemble was how close all of the actors were particularly the chemistry between the actors playing the March sisters. I could have sworn they grew up in the same house. They were that close. It made me smile, made me a little jealous that I never had a sister and also made me want to vomit.

The technical aspects of this production were on point and created a space befitting of a March.  Set designer Laurie Brandon created the living room of the March home with precision and creativity.  The clean lines and muted colors, paired with the delicate items by Properties Designer Jennifer Swisko Beck, made the March home time period specific, warm and homey.  Costume designer Amy Rawe Weimer created beautiful costumes that were colorful and fit each actor well. I could tell that there was a lot of care given to the construction, the color choices and the character’s personalities.  Lighting by designer Lana Riggins creatively transported the audience to different locations with a subtle change in the color and direction of the lighting. Hair design/styling by Kathryn Falcone was superb. I kept looking at the intricate details of each of the actresses tresses.  Each hairstyle was expertly styled with specificity and unique to each character.

As you can tell I thought Little Women was the bomb dot com, but my one critique was the timing of the production.  During the play there were several points where an intermission could have been but it never materialized.  I as an audience member never know when Act 1 ended and it seemed to go on longer than I expected. There wasn’t a natural place to sever the action which made for an uneven split between Act 1 and Act 2.  Adapting a script is hard folks and outside of the odd break-up of the Acts, Erin Riley did an admirable job. I picked up on the substantive changes in form from the original and was especially keen on Jo’s breaking of the 4th wall to talk to the audience which in my humble opinion really brought the audience into the play.  As the Director, what I loved most about Erin Riley’s work was that everything had a purpose and a place. Care was taken with the blocking and the emotional growth of each character that made the production fill whole. Erin Riley put a lot of time, energy, and love into this production and it showed abundantly. Passion can’t be faked.

I will be honest.  Little Women never felt like a story I could relate to.  I’m a Black woman who is an only child and this is a story about a family of four White sisters during the Civil War.  I’ve seen versions of the movie and never read the book. But before the lights went down at the start of the show, I read Erin Riley’s Director’s note and it really struck me.  Her adaptation of Little Women had no mention of the time period in the dialogue and featured a multicultural cast of strong women.  I don’t know why but these touches made the story feel more universal, but I dug it. I was invested in the lives of the characters.  I could see myself in every character. I was the writer who hated society’s narrow definition of what a woman should be. I was the shy kid who escaped in music and feared being left behind her peers.  I was the young girl who acted proper hoping others took me seriously. I was the eldest child who took care of everyone else and ignored the possibility of being loved by another. I saw the story for what it was: what it means to be a woman in the world.   The words from the script rang truer: “Everyone has a different way of being who they are.” Amen. Society should not define the kind of woman you are, only you can do that. Do we have to marry to be happy? Nope! Marmee said it best, “Better a happy old maid than an unhappy wife” Yaasss Queen.  All my single ladies, so let’s get in formation. I’m mixing Beyonce songs go with it. Bottom line, womxn have options in this life. Ladies, you can be whatever you want to be ‘cause you are a special snowflake and Momma Z loves you baby!

SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Run to see Little Women at the Strand Theater Company!  If you want to see a strong ensemble cast deliver an emotion filled and crisp adaptation of a classic then this is the show for you.  The best word I can use to describe this production is LOVELY! Thank you Strand for adapting and producing this beloved story with a modern sensibility.  Little Women was full of light, energy and heart. Go experience the “most magical storm happening before your eyes” before it closes.  —Z

Now through Dec 22nd.  Running Time: 2 hours and 30 mins with an intermission

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