THEATER REVIEW: Musical ‘Little Women’ a heartwarming gem

Petaluma’s Eileen Morris excells in iconic Marmee role|

I don’t know if it’s the time of year or an undiagnosed coronary issue, but I’ve found my heart warmed twice by local theatre productions now running. First, it was the Main Stage West production of “Daddy Long Legs” that started an atrial flutter and now it’s the Spreckels Theatre Company’s “Little Women, the Musical” that’s fibrillating the cold, black heart of this critic.

It’s based, of course, on Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical work first published in 1868. Allan Knee has significantly condensed and somewhat changed the narrative in telling the story of the March sisters - Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth - growing up in New England during the American Civil War. Meg (Kirstin Pieschke) is the oldest and doesn’t feel she’s worthy of or will ever find love. Jo (Sarah Wintermeyer) is a feisty, independent young woman who dreams of a career as a writer. Amy (Madison Scarbrough) is the somewhat-brattish sister who lets her jealousy of Amy get the better of her. Beth (Emily Thomason) is the sensitive, artistic sister and the one sibling that is adored by all.

They’re being raised under the watchful eye of Marmee March (Eileen Morris, a Petaluma resident also known for her work locally with COTS) who’s doing her best to keep the family together while her husband is off to war. They are also under the attentive eye and upturned nose of Aunt March (Karen Pinomaki). Circumstances find the family involved with their neighbor Mr. Laurence (Dwayne Stincelli), his grandson Laurie (Albert McLeod) and Laurie’s tutor Mr. John Brooke (F. James Raasch).

The play begins in a New York boarding house where Jo (Alcott’s proxy) regales fellow tenant Professor Bhaer (Sean O’Brien) with outrageous tales of gore that she can’t seem to get published. It then flashes back to her earlier days of life at home with her sisters. The play moves back and forth in time as the sisters’ lives take the turns and twists that make for good drama and occasional comedy all set to an often-beautiful score with music and lyrics by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickenson.

Director Michael Ross has cast this show perfectly with Mlles. Pieschke, Wintermeyer, Scarbrough and Thomason doing excellent individual work (especially vocally) while gelling completely as the March sisters. The love that is the foundation of any strong family is well portrayed as is the frequent competitiveness and jealousy that often plagues sibling relationships. They come across as a real family.

As the girls’ suitors, Messrs. O’Brien, Raasch, and McLeod also deliver quality performances. O’Brien can always be counted on to deliver an excellent characterization and bring a lilting voice to his work, though his globe-trotting accent (German? Russian? English?) occasionally distracted. Raasch is solid in his work as the tentative tutor. McLeod, a gifted tenor, shows nice growth as an actor here. Ross, who directed McLeod in Sonoma Art’s Live’s The Spitfire Grill, gets a lot more out of him this time around.

The bedrock of this production is its veterans. Morris, Stincelli and Pinomaki provide a lot of the warmth and humor in this show. Morris’s delivery of “Here Alone” is heartbreaking, and Stincelli is a joy to watch as he transforms from curmudgeon to surrogate father in his duet with Thomason in “Off to Massachusetts”. Pinomaki is a snooty hoot as the high-handed but well-meaning Aunt March.

As in the aforementioned “Daddy Long Legs,” the music is handled by a three-piece orchestra with this production under the musical direction of Petaluma’s Lucas Sherman. Howland and Dickstein’s score is the type that stays with you (mostly) only for the duration of the performance. It’s pleasant, often sweet, occasionally emotional and always entertaining. The cast is uniformly excellent in their delivery of the songs, through solos, duets and ensemble pieces. That the songs are often not blended particularly well into the narrative gives the show - around in this incarnation only since 2005 - a more classic Broadway-musical feel.

That’s not a bad thing when it works and it works exceedingly well here. It works because the cast fully embody their characters. It works because Kirsten Pieschke’s Meg represents the doubter in all of us. It works because Sara Wintermeyer plays Jo for all her strengths and flaws. It works because Madison Scarbrough’s Amy is the sibling we all know who struggles with not being the oldest and not being the youngest. It works because Emily Thomason’s Beth is the sibling we all admire for being a peacemaker.

It would be a shame for potential audiences to see this as only a “women’s” show as the issues that many siblings have with each other are not often specific to their gender. I certainly saw a lot of me and my brothers in these sisters. It would be a shame for potential audiences to steer away from this show because of a misconception based on the show’s title and minimal knowledge of the story. They’d miss a terrific story of family, perseverance, growth, love, loss and life delivered via first-class characterizations and beautiful voices. It would be a shame for audiences to not consider this show because it doesn’t seem to be “Christmassy” enough.

Well, it’s often said that Christmas is a time for family. Consider sharing some of your family’s time with the March family and catch a performance of “Little Women, the Musical.”

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