Wright State University admirably delivers Jason Howland, Mindi Dickstein and Allan Knee’s poignant yet unremarkable 2005 musical “Little Women,” based on the classic Civil War-era novel by Louisa May Alcott.
Alcott’s semi-autobiographical coming of age tale centers on the colorful, tightly bonded March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts coping with life on the homefront with their mother while their father serves his country. This sprawling adaptation, which takes a few conceptual liberties, offers heartwarming sentimentality, but particularly lacks a wealth of strong, dynamic, period-appropriate tunes from Howland and Dickstein. Both acts open with lengthy, forgettable numbers emphasizing the adventurous writings of the fiery Jo (Jennifer Lamourt), and there are also songs that could have been discarded in favor of allowing librettist Knee to craft more compelling book scenes. Nevertheless, director Lee Merrill injects joy, sincerity and tenderness into the material which keeps the three hour presentation – which opened Friday, March 4 in the Herbst Theatre fluidly executed by a unified cast, smoothly music directed by Susan Carlock and attractively costumed by Vinicius Vargas – thoroughly engaging.
The spunky Lamourt doesn’t possess the vocal range required to belt her big solos, particularly the musical’s signature anthem “Astonishing,” but she effectively relies on her acting strengths to convey Jo’s spitfire determination to become a successful author while simply embracing the independent woman she is. In a welcomed touch of non-traditional casting, Ria Villaver effectively transitions from bratty immaturity to attractive sophistication as Amy. Kathleen Ferrini is nicely understated as Meg. Darien Crago is lovely as the quiet, reserved Beth and also serves as choreographer, specifically staging “Five Forever” with carefree enthusiasm. These ladies form a naturally compatible connection with Madeleine Casto, excellently commanding as the affectionately stern Marmee. Additionally, Michelle Weiser is terrifically authoritative as the society-driven Aunt March, and Lauren S. Deaton, a standout in productions at Sinclair Community College, fares well as boarding house owner Mrs. Kirk.
The men of “Women” are equally appealing. Casey Jordan creates a pleasant rapport with Lamourt in the charming yet underwritten role of Professor Bhaer. Fine tenor Zach Cossman is an endearing presence as Laurie, who pines for Jo yet ultimately falls for Amy. Jason D. Collins, marvelously paired with Casto in “August: Osage County” earlier this season, offers another satisfying turn as Mr. Laurence. The adorably meek Justin Talkington nearly steals the show as John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor smitten with Meg.
Little Women continues through Sunday, March 13 in the downstairs Herbst Theatre of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 90 minutes; Act Two: 70 minutes. Tickets are $7-$10. For tickets or more information, call (937) 775-2500.
In related news, WSU’s 2011-12 mainstage season will consist of Death of a Salesman (directed by Greg Hellems and tentatively featuring Scott Stoney and Lee Merrill), Hairspray (directed by Joe Deer and choreographed by Teressa Wylie McWilliams), Rent (directed by W. Stuart McDowell), The Merchant of Venice (directed by Sandra Crews) and The Phantom of the Opera (directed by W. Stuart McDowell). Part 2 of Bruce Cromer’s adaptation of Barnaby Rudge will be featured in the Herbst Theatre along with two productions yet to be determined which will be respectively directed by Marya Spring Cordes and Jamie Cordes. The mainstage and Herbst selections are subject to change.