In 1868, Louisa May Alcott created a classic American story that enthralled and inspired generations of (mostly) girls, by writing about aspects of her own life and family -- and also by ignoring other aspects.
In Little Women, a mother and four sisters are isolated in a small New England town, dreaming their dreams despite an absent father and poverty that contrasts with the better-off characters around them. Actually, Alcott's family was fairly famous (though comparatively poor). Her father, Bronson Alcott, began and ran a well-known school, and was associated with the liberal thinkers known as Transcendentalists. He took particular pride in educating his daughters, and among Louisa May's personal teachers were Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. Their presence made Concord (and her own house) a magnet for reporters and tourists, which she herself noted in a satiric newspaper account.
She had strong and accomplished women models as well, including her own mother, an activist for women's voting rights and abolition of slavery. Perhaps the most brilliant and independent woman of the era, Margaret Fuller, taught for awhile at her father's school.
But when the publisher of her romance novels (much like Jo's in Little Women) requested something in another genre -- an uplifting book for girls -- Louisa May Alcott concentrated a story that transcended its time and place, and elevated creativity from Puritan disrepute to a natural element in moral development. In some of the many stage and screen versions since, bits of her background were added back. A little got into the 2005 Broadway musical version, currently performed by the Humboldt Light Opera at the College of the Redwoods.
Even more than the novel, the musical emphasizes the quest of second-oldest daughter Jo March to become a writer. Some of her swashbuckling fantasies are acted out on stage (with spirited performances, particularly by Coral Bourne), but her success comes from writing the home truths, and by her devotion to others. Essie Bertain as Jo capably unites the show, maturing before our eyes from the petulant bravado of adolescence to a centered young woman.
The script dramatizes the novel's most cherished moments, but with so many characters, the other players must make the best use of their brief time on stage. Shaelan Salas is sweet and then steady as the eldest daughter, Meg. As Amy (the youngest), Rachael Fales breaks through with her energy and commitment. Jessica Malone is so perfectly pretty and angelic as Beth that even if you didn't know the story and only the conventions of melodrama, you'd be sure she's doomed. But she's affecting anyway, with an especially attractive voice. Her duets with Bill Ryder (as the wealthy Mr. Lawrence) and especially her second act duet with Bertain felt to me like the show's most emotionally effective moments. The final Bertain-Sharkey duet was another high point.
Tyler Rich (Laurie), Tandy Floyd (Marmee), Valerie Bourne (Aunt March) and especially Kevin Sharkey as Professor Bhaer played their important supporting roles well. Since this is an HLO production, directed by Carol McWhorter Ryder, with musical direction (and piano accompaniment) by Sharon Welton, the singing is superior.
Some of the songs are charming, some are Broadway-bombastic, and with so many characters and so much to do (and sing about), plus frequent clamorous scene changes (though the crew was very efficient), the play feels choppy, without dramatic momentum. The costumes, designed by Kevin Sharkey, are dazzling, though I'm not sure how well they support the impression of poverty.
With comic moments in the mix, Little Women is reasonably entertaining for those not already devoted to the story. I can't speak for devotees -- mostly what I recall from watching the 1949 movie on TV with my sisters was getting a little buzz from June Allyson. But maybe all that devotees need to know is that the characters are more contemporary interpretations but still the same March girls, and their favorite scenes are given life, ready to evoke memories and tantalize another generation.
Little Women continues Fridays and Saturdays through May 23, starting at 7:30, with a 2 p.m. matinee this Sunday (the 17th).
The Dell'Arte School students who created the Glasnost Family show last Christmas present original short plays as their individual thesis projects. The first set is this weekend, Thursday through Saturday and the second May 21-24, at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.
The first and second year students of Northcoast Prep present Cervantes' comic classic, Don Quijote de la Mancha, adapted and directed by Gretha Omey, on Wednesday and Thursday, May 20 and 21, and Saturday and Sunday, May 23 and 24, in the Gist Hall Theatre at HSU at 7:30.
North Coast Repertory Theatre opens Mel Brooks' musical comedy, The Producers, on Thursday, May 21 at 8.
At the Arcata Playhouse, this is the final weekend for Third Base, a comic presentation by Nick Trotter and Jerry Lee Wallace (Thursday May 14 through Sunday at 8.) Next Friday and Saturday (May 22-3) the Playhouse hosts Wonderland, a circus adaptation of Alice in Wonderland by the San Francisco Circus Center, at the earlier kids-friendly time of 7 p.m.