'Little Women' review: Stylish music and eclectic ensemble flourish at The Dio
Courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography
150 years removed from its original publishing date, Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age novel “Little Women” is still finding pop cultural relevance. From as recently as 2019 when Greta Gerwig’s wonderful cinematic adaptation was released to the now exceptional musical production that’s been mounted at The Dio, few stories have seen their work reinterpreted the way “Little Women” has for over a century. When “Little Women The Broadway Musical” premiered with Sutton Foster circa 2005, the show came and went without much fanfare, lasting less than 140 performances before moving on to regional tours where it would gain a loyal following.
It’s that love and appreciation that shines brightest on The Dio’s stage where director Steve DeBruyne has assembled a wonderful cast and crew (plus an always delectable pre-show dinner) to help bring the story of the March sisters to life. If you can look past the script’s (penned by Allan Knee) broad characterizations and Mindi Dickstein and Jason Howland’s at times shallow music and lyrics, The Dio’s production makes for a worthwhile holiday treat, thanks to a talented quartet of performers whose infections camaraderie offer a soothing dose of yuletide cheer.
The 2019 “Little Women” this is not, which surprisingly found a way to recontextualize portions of Alcott’s sacred text, “Little Women The Broadway Musical” is a more condensed version of what audiences may remember, for better or worse. Anna Dreslinski-Cooke marvels playing the spunky, independent, and stern Jo March, a wildly ambitious author with dreams of selling her stories to big publishing firms in New York City. In one of the script's best elements, along with how DeBruyne and set designer Matt Tomich stage it, is while Jo pitches the narrative, the fictionalized story materializes on the second floor above her with the other actors envisioning it for the audience (and doing it decked out in Norma Polk’s astute costume work). Not only do these Act I and II opening sequences allow the performers creative liberties with how to interpret these imaginary characters, it’s a slick nod to the process all aspiring writers endure and, well, it’s just plain fun.
It’s a unique framing device that elevates Jo into an honest person, as someone who writes what she knows. As it is in those tiny vignettes, and remembering her childhood in flashbacks, the real impetus of her novel-in-progress becomes whole and the true tale of “Little Women” is born. The other sisters are quickly introduced, perhaps too quickly, but are nonetheless still inviting and peppy. There’s Meg (Sarah Brown - boasting a wonderful voice), the oldest and wisest who is looking for someone to put a ring on it; Beth (Anne Koziara - delivering a calm and patient performance), the quiet and reserved one; and Amy (Maddie Ringvelski - finding the right balance between lovable and childish), the youngest and most pretensions. Collectively, along with Dreslinski-Cooke, this is an excellent make-up of the March group and it’s amplified by Marlene Inman’s soothing matriarch Marmee who delivers a soothing rendition of the song “Days of Plenty.”
Of course, you can’t have “Little Women” without the men. Dan Morrison scores howls of laughter with his Scrooge McDuck crossed with Nigel Thornberry interpretation of the rich and frothy next door neighbor Mr. Laurence, likewise Tyler J Messinger’s Laurie whom he plays with a manic Jim Carrey in “Ace Ventura” mantra. It took a few scenes for me to warm up to the choices Messinger was making (as I had never seen a Laurie interpretation quite like this), but the goofy, Bugs Bunny demeanor worked in the character’s pursuit of Jo’s heart. It was nice seeing Messinger and Dreslinski-Cooke opposite each other for more than a few scenes even if “Little Women” aficionados know where their relationship is headed. Rounding out the cast is Anne Bauman’s stern and wry Aunt March, DeBruyne’s romantic Mr. Brooks, and Sam Wright’s studious Professor Bhaer.
Fans of the novel will be pleased to see the book’s most prized scenes are replicated on The Dio stage: from Joe and Meg’s dance to Amy’s horrendous act of self indulgence and Mr. Brooks courtship with Meg. But other elements in Knee’s script are hard to ignore, including the omission of the March sister’s father, of whom is only briefly mentioned in passing; another has Meg give birth to twins, but nobody talks about them aside from a singular line. Even a certain character’s death doesn’t quite elicit the emotional reaction you’d expect.
But Dreslinski-Cooke’s performance goes a long way in holding the script's sloppier elements together (specifically her vocals during the Act 1 closer “Astonishing”) and the consistent Dio pedigree with which DeBruyne and company manage to overcome creative hurdles. Case in point, Tomich’s beautiful setting, light, and sound design, which gives this production a wondrous, storybook glow that wears many hats as the show transitions between various locales and time shifts. And while canned tracks aren’t usually my thing, I was impressed by Lisa Merte’s musical direction and the cast's ability to make it their own. Grace Nulsen’s choreography never lags neither does Chloe Grisa’s wig design and Eileen Obradovich’s prop work.
At the end of the day, “Little Women” themes still resonate. Jo’s rejection of societal norms and insistence of having a seat at the table and speaking her mind is refreshing, especially when you consider the era in which her character was written. A musical adaptation of “Little Women” was never going to create the same feeling as the original source material and flesh out all the fulfilling side plots (the relationship between Mr. Laurence and Beth come to mind), but the heart remains the same and The Dio has delivered a production that brings out the show’s best qualities.
The Dio’s Production of LITTLE WOMEN THE BROADWAY MUSICAL, which is almost sold out for the entire run, continues through December 23rd. You can purchase tickets here.