This month, award-winning Broadway musical Little Women sees its European premier at Hope Mill Theatre. This adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel about four sisters growing up in Massachusetts was first performed back in 2005, and given the book’s enduring popularity it’s surprising that it has only just made it across the pond.
Alcott’s heroine – rebellious writer Jo – is the driving force behind this production and Amie Giselle-Ward’s performance in the role is suitably dominant. Jo’s energy is captured in Giselle-Ward’s constant restless movement, while her fiery strength is mirrored in a powerful vocal performance.
In the novel, the events that befall Jo and her family take place over a number of years, but unfortunately here they are compressed into such a limited timeframe that there’s no sense of this time passing. When Meg breaks the news of her engagement, Jo berates her for breaking the pact they made to stay together as if it was long ago, but the two scenes are in fact only separated by one song.
Crucial moments are also missed as a result of this severe editing – the span of Amy and Laurie’s relationship is confined to one scene, while we do not even see Jo and the professor’s first few meetings. The twenty three musical numbers, though well performed by all the cast, add to the running time but rarely add to the plot.
While Jo is a vibrant and likeable heroine, many of the remaining characters lack depth and are largely played for laughs. With the exception of their romantic duet ‘More Than I Am,’ John and Meg’s relationship is used as a source of comically awkward moments. Katie Marie-Carter is thoroughly entertaining as the spoilt Amy, while Laurie’s only serious scene is his proposal to Jo.
There are truly moving moments too, when the close bond between the cast members is palpable and the spirit of Alcott’s novel is most faithfully replicated: the March sisters gathered around Marmee to hear a letter from their absent father, or Jo’s heartbreaking conversation with her mother after the loss of Beth.
The Orchard House set design – with two doors that open like a doll’s house to reveal the rooms inside – acts as an anchor for the production, a constant reminder of the March family home. A small raised platform crammed with furniture and boxes depicts Jo’s attic, its continous presence a symbol of her passionate ambition.
It’s a clever device to have Jo’s Gothic story acted out as she attempts to pitch it to an editor, and rings the changes stylistically, but the story’s actual parallels with the plot undermine a later revelation that is so pivotal in the book – that Jo should write what she knows. This sums up Little Women in a nutshell – it’s an enjoyable show to watch, with comedy, tragedy and excellent vocal performances, but it fails to find the warm, sincere heart of Louisa May Alcott’s original work.