Jacksonville University, featuring the Jacksonville University Orchestra, presented a four-performance production beginning on October 13th of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the Broadway musical with music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein and the book by Allan Knee. The musical debuted on Broadway in 2005 and ran for 127 performances.
Alcott’s novel, first published in 1868, became a popular success beloved by generations of women; the book remains required reading for girls of all ages. It was made into fourteen movie adaptations over the years; three were outstanding (with Katherine Hepburn in 1933, with Greer Garson in 1978, and with Winona Ryder in 1994). A non-musical version by playwright John Ravold was presented by Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre in 2010, directed by JU graduate Erik DeCicco and featuring JU’s Deborah Jordan as Mrs. March.
Evolution into a musical version was inevitable. A road show version that came through this area several years ago played in Orange Park for one evening, but the Dual Critics found the Jacksonville University production far superior from the standpoint of staging and voices.
The story is well known, with the films are available at the public library and in addition, one or more of the versions is always showing up on cable television, so all we will say about the plot is that it concerns the four March Sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy Meg, who share their loves, their joys and their sorrows during their teenage years and into adulthood.
The musical follows the novel for the most part, although the poverty the March family experienced was not really emphasized. The music and lyrics advanced and supplemented the story, and because each song was so well performed by outstanding voices, they became memorable to us, although it is not music you walk out humming.
To single out each individual excellence would merely restate the cast list but Jo March (Nikki Spies) and her sisters Meg (Maggie Moore), Beth (Elyn Wolfe) and Amy (Jet Thomas) were central as the protagonists. The story, considered autobiographical, was centered on the feisty aspiring writer Jo, who represented Alcott. Ms. Spies not only sang a half-dozen songs wonderfully, either as a solo or with other cast members, but turned in a fine performance as an actress displaying the many vicissitudes experienced by her character.
Keisha Gill was the strong, nurturing mother, Mrs. March or Marmee, as she was known to her daughters.
One of the challenges of college productions is that cast members often have to play much older characters and remain convincing. The JU cast excelled at this with several fine examples: Claire Futo as the crotchety and rich Aunt March, Alec Hadden as the gruff elderly neighbor with his glorious mutton chops, and Stephen Johns as the studious thirty-five-year-old Professor Bhaer, who falls in love with Jo.
Then there was the next door neighbor male suitor to Jo, Laurie (Ross Frontz) who matures on stage from a carefree youth who eventually marries Amy and Erick Crow as John Brooke who marries Meg. Leanne Gullo played Mrs. Kirk who ran a New York boarding house.
Rounding out the cast as the ensemble were Leanna Brown, Michelle Csapek, Sara Eckman, Jordyn Jones, Sapphire Garrett, Brandon MacLean, Ryan Manning, Michelle Mestas and Alex Rodriquez.
The choreography by Tony Williams was energetic. The set and lights by Brandon Lettow brought the New England of the novel to life. Interiors included the March’s neatly kept home to a ballroom with chandeliers; while exteriors portrayed the seashore and a wooded landscape.
The costumes were designed by Janae LaFleur and captured the era. Dresses were largely in muted colors, with many very full hoop skirts.
Robert Tudor was the Music Director; Dr. Marguerite Richardson directed the 18-piece orchestra tucked away under the stage in the Swisher Theatre.
Little Women was directed by Kimberly Beasley who is an assistant professor of voice at Jacksonville University. In reading the biographies in the program, we noted that a number of her students were in this production. Professor Beasley’s definitive direction made this show a truly marvelous evening of theatre, a real treat for the eyes and ears. The voices were indeed superb.
A word of advice to the general public. The next time you hear about a play or a musical at Jacksonville University, by all means make plans to attend. Our experience has been the university has exceptional talent both in musical theatre and drama. In addition, they always have reasonable and affordable ticket prices, and an exceptionally comfortable theatre.