Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Little Women
Spreckels Performing Arts Center
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of Stage Kiss, Bright Half Life, and Odysseo


The Cast
Photo by Eric Chazankin
Though published in the years just after the Civil War and mostly set during that conflict (though far from the action), Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" has become a classic in part because of timeless themes that resonate in any age: duty, familial love (and conflict), jealousy, ambition, and the need to be true to one's self.

Today, as we witness the ever-growing gap between rich and poor, we see its 19th century counterpart laid out for us in the very first scene of this charming and almost entirely successful musical adaptation. At curtain, Marmee, the matriarch of the March family, mother of the four titular "little women" is struggling to make a festive Christmas, and we see a family walking the same very narrow path between poverty and comfort of so many of today's Americans. On one side is Marmee's mother-in-law, the dowager Aunt March (in an hysterical performance by Karen Pinomaki), living in a fine house and holding out promises of European travel, and the Laurences, the well-to-do landed neighbors. On the other are the Hummels, a poor German family who have a hard time even putting food on the table. For Marmee and her four girls, whether it is poverty or plenty that awaits them is an open question.

Fortunately, the path to its answer is a delightful one, filled with laughter and heartache and grace and struggle—lovingly presented by an excellent cast under the sure hand of a skilled director. I saw this show in its original production in New York, with the magnificent Sutton Foster in the starring role, yet it's safe to say I enjoyed this staging even more, notwithstanding Broadway's grander sets, full orchestra, and more polished performances. Perhaps because the story has such a homespun quality, and revolves—in part—around the stories the girls act out in their attic, it lends itself well to the intimate setting of at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center's Bette Condiotti Theatre.

While this show is incredibly "square" (the closest anyone comes to profanity is regular outbursts of "Christopher Columbus!"), it's also incredibly charming. The cast is almost uniformly wonderful. As Jo, Rebekah Person is a delight, with a terrific comic touch and a spitfire quality that is in perfect alignment with the character Alcott created. Her voice, while often a little on the thin side, is almost always on pitch, and she sells her songs with gusto. As little sister Amy, Madison Genovese is feisty and fun. Though far too old for the role, she makes us forget all that with her youthful spirit.

Meg, played with a wonderful comic touch by Heather Buck, gets the biggest laugh of the night, when she returns from a ball, and says—with tremendous comic gravitas—"I may have left here a girl, but I came home a woman." Tariq Amir Malik, looking a bit like actor Topher Grace, does marvelous work as Laurie, the grandson of the well-to-do Laurence family, bringing a wonderful lightness to all his scenes. (However, he is much more comfortable in his chest voice than in his head voice, which occasionally detracts from his otherwise excellent performance.) The strongest voice in the cast belongs to Tina Lloyd Meals, who is a terrifically maternal Marmee.

Though the original production ran for just a few months on Broadway, I doubt it was due to the quality of the book or the music. The songs are perfectly placed, rising organically out of the action, and both moving the plot forward and adding richness and nuance to the characters. Composer Jason Howland delivers some lovely melodies, and lyricist Mindi Dickstein manages to maintain the spirit of the characters without being old-fashioned. Allan Knee's book does an excellent job of condensing a 600-page novel into a two-and-a-half hour show.

The musical accompaniment—piano, violin and cello—is perfect for both the score and the room. All three musicians (Jim Coleman, Lisa Doyle and Maury Cohen) earned the enthusiastic applause they received at the end of the evening at the performance I attended. Director Thomas Chapman should have taken the stage at curtain call, as well, having guided this production with expertise and flair. His kite effect in act two was an especially lovely touch.

While thousands upon thousands will rush off to performances of The Nutcracker this holiday season (including the one playing next door, at the larger of the two Spreckels venues), you can see that any year. This smile-inducing production of Little Women is around for only a few weeks. Don't miss it. It's perfect Christmas fare for the whole family.

Little Women runs through December 20th, 2015, in the Bette Condiotti Theater at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. (except December 12th), with matinees at 2:00 p.m. on December 12th and 19th, and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $16-$26 and are available by calling the box office at 707-588-3400. Box office hours are 12-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The box office is also open one hour before showtime. Additional information is available at www.spreckelsonline.com.


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