When asked to think of a show that would be appropriate for celebrating the holiday season, one may not think of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century novel “Little Women.” Although the book remains an icon, it means different things to different people — everything from a 19th-century sentimental view of family life to a first step toward feminism.
Yet a musical about family life certainly fits the holiday season, and the current production at Off-Broadstreet Theater undermines any skeptic’s negative reactions. In short, “Little Women,” the Broadway Musical — which continues at the Hopewell theater through the first weekend in 2015 — proves to be a most entertaining choice for the holidays.
The 2005 musical is based on Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel, published first in the late 1860s. The original production — with book by Allen Knee, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and music by Jason Howland — ran for five months on Broadway, followed by an 11-month, 36-city tour. It received a Tony Award nomination, an Outer Critics Circle nomination, and three Drama Desk Award nominations. Since closing in the United States it has been performed in Australia and Germany.
The little women of the title, so dubbed by their father, who is off fighting in the Civil War, refers to the four March sisters from Concord, Massachusetts. The sisters are reaching that age when they will step out on to the path of their adult lives. And while women of the era were expected to marry and to put their energy into domestic matters, there are some rumblings of equal rights and other life plan options in the background.
Meg (played by Sarah Whiteford) is the oldest and the first to break away and marry, making the first crack in what had seemed an indissoluble group. Beth (Elizabeth Rzasa) is goodness itself, even charming the sisters’ ill-tempered neighbor into playing the piano with her. She is so sweet that cynics have long contended that she was bound to die while still technically a child, and as it happens does. The second child, Jo (Melissa Rittman), is the ring leader: a tomboy and an aspiring writer who cooks up Gothic tales that the others enact. The youngest child, Amy (Ally Hern), is full of mischief. Presiding over this spirited brood is their patient mother, Marmee (Jan Miktus). And occasionally presiding is their officiously proper aunt (Beverly Rabinovitz).
In addition to the already mentioned actresses, most of the actors are also long-time OBT favorites. Barry Abramowitz is perhaps the most familiar, and OBT regulars will remember him from a wide variety of roles, ranging from Shylock and Don Quixote, to Big Julie in “Guys and Dolls” and Harry Walsh in “Violet Sharp.”
Here he is so committed to his part of Professor Bhauer — the German refugee who is unable to assimilate easily into his new country — that the audience never thinks of him as anything but the professor. Robert Thick — who along with his wife, Julie, produces OBT productions and has directed over 180 plays for the theater — directs and appears as Mr. Laurence, the grumpy neighbor. Julie Thick provides the choreography and keeps the show moving gracefully.
The cast of 10 able singers was accompanied by OBT first-timers, Paul Paulson on piano with support from Justin Hornsby on keyboard. Paulson plays with a variety of groups and is currently the organist at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Cherry Hill. Hornsby is a graduate student at Westminster Choir College, starting his career as both performer and teacher.
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” says Jo at the opening of the novel. Think of this show as an unexpected holiday present from OBT.
Little Women, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, January 3, Friday and Saturday at 8 and on Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Desserts served an hour before show, $27 to $31.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.