BLUE HILL — They may be little, but they are mighty. That is an apt description of the women in the Louisa May Alcott story about the March sisters.
Mighty also is a good adjective for the women who play those roles in New Surry Theatre’s production of “Little Women,” which opened last weekend at the Town Hall Theater. The production runs through May 11.
Having read the book many times as a girl, and having seen almost every movie adaption since, I have somehow managed not to attend a stage version of the novel, although there have been many, many including a full-blown musical.
So, this was a new and, as it turns out, thoroughly enjoyable experience for me and, it seems, the rest of the audience, who laughed, sighed, cried and applauded enthusiastically during last Friday’s opening performance.
Among those numerous adaptations, Director Shari John wisely picked one by Thomas Hischak that mines the original text for plenty of golden moments — some hilarious, others heartwarming or heartbreaking.
It also adds an extra dimension by having some of the story narrated by a grown-up Josephine March, with the conceit that she is addressing a Ladies Literary Society as a special guest author.
This is a good idea, as it telescopes some of the events into a manageable, fast-paced three hours. Sara Domareki, who plays this role, does a fine job relating the story, as a proper 19th century lady author, although she seems to be channeling the tamer Meg or Beth March rather than the bombastic Jo. The two versions of Jo never quite connect. Perhaps a pair of wire-rimmed glasses on the older version would at least make them look more alike.
This dichotomy is enhanced as soon as young Jo (Hazel Woodward) gallops onto the stage with all the awkward energy of a filly that has plenty of horse power but hasn’t yet gained full control of it.
Woodward is a terrific casting choice and in truth fits the part better than most of the glamorous movie stars who have played her on film.
Despite Jo’s outspoken brashness, her gawkiness and melodrama, it is easy to see why she is the strong, somewhat tyrannical alpha sibling and also why two men fall madly in love with her without her ever once batting long eyelashes, being prettily petulant or swinging shapely hips.
All that flirty, pouty stuff is left to her little sister Amy, the youngest sister, excellently played by Magnolia Vandiver, who makes a smooth and believable transformation from a rather bratty pre-teen, into a self-possessed and charming young woman.
The oldest sister Meg, terrifically realized by Grace Neal, seems rather precociously self-possessed from the get-go, that is, until in one of the show’s most delightful scenes, she loses all composure while trying to ditch an ardent suitor at Jo’s request, no, Jo’s orders, when she is clearly in love with the boy.
As the middle sister Beth, Rose Kazmierczak does a good job at embodying the girl’s painful shyness, but she needs to find a way to let more of her sweetness shine through.
Another wonderful March woman is the girls’ steadfast mother, Marmee. Jaimie Paige shines in this role, exuding all the gentle strength it requires.
Which brings us to wonderfully imperious Aunt March, the eldest of the March clan, who shows up from time to time, like a bad faerie, and is absolutely furious about everything. Veronica Young manages to make this thoroughly unpleasant character an absolute hoot and commands the stage whenever she appears in her lugubrious lace and taffeta gown that makes her resemble an elegant crow.
Shout-out here to Magnolia and Marianne Vandiver and crew for one exquisite costume after another for both the March girls and the menfolk — including a Civil War-era Union uniform that looked as though it had actually been in a war. The only small flaws in this general tour d’ force of costuming are the lack of a mustache or something for Jo’s melodrama character Rinaldo and not finding a short wig for Jo after she sells her hair. The overall response to the reveal here isn’t “oh no!” but “oh yeah, she’s just folded it under.” Still it is an absolute miracle what they managed to do on what must have been a tight budget.
And speaking of miracles, what Frank John and Annie Poole crew have managed with the set design and function also is astonishing. Not only did they create the genteel, worn ambience of the March home, their revolving backdrops also morph into a couple of opulent drawing rooms, and a New York boarding house without a furniture-moving stage hand in sight. As someone who knows this theater’s narrow backstage, these swift, invisible and silent set changes are a true wonder.
I wish it could be said the men in the cast are all as impressive as the women, but, with the exception of a marvelous Randall Simons as Mr. Lawrence, who has made him into that rare creature — a wealthy man with a kind and loving soul — and an excellent Patrick Harris, the poor but cultured German professor, the men are uncomfortably stiff. So stiff that at times it’s difficult for them to maintain their balance.
This works OK for Mr. March, earnestly played by Jim Tatgenhorst as a war-weary chaplain recuperating from an illness, and for Hoyt Hutchins, a diffident, love-struck young man. But it does not quite work for character of Laurie, the next door neighbor who escapes the gilded cage of his grandfather’s home to frolic with the Marches.
While Morgan Pfohl looks perfect, and sometimes sounds like a young man having a blast with his fun neighbors, the only time Laurie really physically relaxes into the role is when he is dueling(with fire pokers) with Jo in a well-choreographed mock combat scene.
But this was opening night, and one hopes all the actors will settle more comfortably into their characters and pick up the pace a bit, in the next two weekends.
All in all, a visit to the March home in 19th century Concord, Mass., is a superb way for the whole family to spend a spring evening or afternoon.
Performances are at 7 p.m. May 3, 4, 10 and 11 and at 3 p.m. May 5. To reserve seats, call 200-4720 and visit newsurrytheatre.org.