“It’s a mean and stormy night. The moors are bleak and bloody. Thunder claps! Lightning Strikes! The fair Clarissa, her clothes in disarray, races across the wild coastal heath – “
Replace “Clarissa” with “reviewer”, “moors” with “golf courses” and “heath” with “town”, and you have a rather accurate description of my journey to see Little Women: The Musical (directed by Molly Ketcheson and Kate Stamoulis) at the StAge one blustery March evening. I was not the only one to brave the storm: the auditorium was booming with laughter and chatter as I entered to take my seat.
We sat waiting, facing a stage with its black curtains drawn, and an assortment of old-fashioned, homely chairs strewn across the floor between it and the seats. You would have been forgiven for thinking the whole production was going to unravel in that small space; however, when the lights fell and silence with them, the curtains pulled away to reveal a stage with a chair, a table with a keyboard on it (which turned out to be a stand-in for a piano) and a raised platform running along the back, upon which sat yet another chair and some books.
These three levels represented three areas of the house of the March family around whom the story centres: a living area, then a neutral hallway-type space on the stage, and the attic. Set designer Eleanor Clyburn managed to recreate a whole building using very little and was effectively used throughout, with the characters moving with ease from level to level, and other locations were easily shown with no confusion. Changes in lighting and a spotlight helped isolate the levels and added a sense of drama to the more emotional moments.
So, what of the characters? Well, there were quite a few. Aside from the four March sisters and their mother “Marmee”, there was Dr Bhaer the professor, Laurie and his grandfather the neighbours, Laurie’s tutor John and formidable Aunt March. The supporting cast all did a largely admirable job, with Alex Schellekens’ Laurie in particular provoking bouts of laughter throughout the performance.
But the show was ultimately, and rightly, carried by the central family. Mhairi Claire Lynch as Marmee was perhaps a little underplayed, but I’ll put this down to opening-night nerves. Harriet Tyler perfectly embodied the angelic sweetness of Beth; Emma Johnston was consistently endearing as Meg; and Aria Ornes commanded the stage as temperamental but good-hearted Amy. In the largest role, Mackenzie Pinkin lead the way as aspiring writer Jo, skilfully navigating her moments of anger, sadness, joy and lovingness. All five worked well together and they were a convincing family from the start.
Little Women: The Musical is, of course, a musical, and it doesn’t let you forget that fact for a second. Packed to the brim with musical numbers, the characters always seemed on the brink of bursting into song. Unfortunately, the songs were all very similar and none were memorable – well, not on the merit of their melodies anyway. The soundtrack’s dominion over the narrative was partly, but not completely, justified by the performers’ singing talents – which also made up for any weaknesses in their performances. The actresses portraying the March family had particularly beautiful singing voices and pulled off some amazing harmonies. Pinkin’s solo “The Fire Within Me” stood out as a powerful and moving solo, thanks to her powerful singing and performance. As talented as the singers all were and as lovely as it was to listen to them, I can’t help but wish there were fewer songs and more moments of characterisation: if they weren’t singing, they were talking to each other, and usually what they were saying wasn’t very insightful.
So, I will be returning to the book soon to rediscover the characters in their fully-developed form. Nonetheless, despite my personal distaste for the overabundance of very nice but rather uninspiring songs, Little Women: The Musical was an entertaining night, if mostly for the moments of comedy (which were occasionally unintentional, I fear) and for the impressive singers that made up the cast. It’s nothing revolutionary, but the production did a perfectly nice job with a perfectly nice musical.