We assumed that we would have to wait until Summer 2017 for any more work from the Women’s Theatre Festival, founded earlier this year by Ashley Popio. Surprisingly, and thankfully, that proved not to be the case. WTF is staging Little Women: A Holiday Performance and Tea on Dec. 8-11 and 15-18 in Sonorous Road Theatre in Raleigh.
Little Women, penned in 1868 and 1869, is the first in what would become a series of three novels by American author Louisa May Alcott(1832-88). It was an immediate commercial and critical success; and many adaptations have been made, including: a 1917 silent film, a 1981 anime series, the famous 1994 American film, a 1998 opera, and a 2005 Broadway musical, starring Sutton Foster as Jo March, which Theater Previews at Duke brought to Durham for an out-of-town tryout in the fall of 2004.
The realistic novel observes of one group of sisters’ transformation from girls into women during the American Civil War. Family, poverty, sacrifice, marriage, and sisterhood are all strong themes in the work; and it is known for speaking realistically to young female readers across the globe.
The adaptation of Little Women staged at Sonorous Road Theatre this December stays faithful to these themes and Alcott’s work without becoming didactic or preachy. The audience is permitted to observe and draw its own conclusions. This version of the story, which is adapted by Lorelei Lemon and Ashley Popio, proves to be slightly overcrowded with characters, and a few side stories could have been trimmed; but the overall play moves quickly and does not become too bogged down in the details.
Director Ashley Popio markets the production as sensory-friendly, opting for dimming rather than full blackouts, calm and quiet music rather than boisterous scoring, and staging that does not overwhelm the audience visually. These are all important factors of audience members with autism spectrum disorders or folks with sensory integration challenges. This does not seem of paramount importance to most audience members, but it cannot be overstated how imperative it is that other theater companies take note of this strategy and put it to use for select performances. The effect took nothing from this production’s quality and added to the sense of selflessness and family outlined in Alcott’s novel. It is certainly what Jo March would have wanted at her show.
Lorelei Lemon gives one of the greatest performances in the Triangle this year, and outshines most of the other Jo March’s that we have seen. A comedic genius, Lemon easily finds the comedy in Jo’s attitudes and speech, but weaves in and out of the dramatic moments, making them one in the same. Jo is known for being the “tomboy” of the family, and Lemon has no trouble tapping into the rough-and-tumble nature of this young lady. She is the babysitter that you dreamed of having whenever your parents went out.
Maggie Lea is a pillar of strength and fortitude as sister Meg March, finding the silly and charming big-sister moments that present themselves when the girls are together. Ren Cleveland plays the shy and musical Beth March with terrific sweetness and gentleness, making our sympathy for her overflow. Seanna Osborne bursts onstage like a tornado as the sassy and passionate Young Amy Marchin Act One, and Maxine Eloi shows the maturity and refinement of Amy’s later years in Act Two.
In terrific contrast to Jo’s shenanigans is David Hudson’s turn as the German Professor Friedrich Bhaer. Hudson’s dialectic work is accurate, and his understated performance suits the piece well. Douglas Lally’s poignant work as the outwardly gruff Mr. Lawrence provides some of the play’s most moving moments. Lally manages to drive home the story’s most painful moment without speaking a word.
A highlight of this production is Johannah Edwards’ beautiful costume work. Using separate detachable pieces, she is able to quickly change dresses with little fuss; and Jo’s changes are especially impressive. This could have become a show about costume changes, but it was not.
Elizabeth Newton’s set was appropriate for the piece, but furniture sometimes got in the actors’ way. This is a challenge in Sonorous Road’s space, and Newton made every effort to keep things economical. Rowen Haigh Mahoney’s prop work is detailed and accurate, adding much to the March’s world.
Alyssa Petrone takes on the burden of lighting Sonorous Road’s shiny stage with its limited LED grid. It can be difficult for shows not to come out looking like Madonna videos in this facility, but Petrone finds warmth wherever she can.
Elizabeth Newton’s addition of a large rug certainly helps the reflections, but more may have helped. The biggest challenge facing Alyssa Petrone is the way that Ashley Popio has cleverly chosen to isolate scenes around the stage, rather than wasting time on big set changes. This was a wise decision, but the available lighting cannot make clear isolations: the actors are either half in darkness or areas are over-lit. It may have proven better to break the stage into three large segments, rather than use smaller isolations (such as scenes with Aunt March).
A unique element of Little Women: A Holiday Performance and Tea is, of course, the tea. Popio has included a full tea service (with tea, muffins, cookies, and sugar) as part of the ticket price, and it certainly rings true to the period of the play and the “young girl” aspect of the story — and a little holiday warmth does not hurt either. What audience member does not want a personal hot tea pot next to him or her throughout a show, complete with choice of tea bags?
This is a production that you should be taking your kids to this weekend before it is too late. While it does not have Santa Claus, Ebenezer Scrooge, or The Grinch, WTF’s Little Women definitely maintains a sense of holiday spirit.
The play lands in PG territory for some emotionally upsetting moments.
SECOND OPINION: Dec. 14th Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-womens-theatre-festival-drums-up-unprecedented-support-for-gender-equality-on-local-stages/Content?oid=5094484 and Dec. 8th mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/little-women/Event?oid=5093308; and Nov. 29th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com preview by Sarah Lindenfeld Hall for “Go Ask Mom”: ttp://www.wral.com/women-s-theater-group-plans-little-women-performance-tea-for-families/15951321/.
The Women’s Theatre Festival presents LITTLE WOMEN: A HOLIDAY PERFORMANCE AND TEA at 7 p.m. Dec. 16 and 17 and 3 p.m. Dec. 18 at Sonorous Road Theatre, 209 Oberlin Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27605.
TICKETS: $26.87 ($16.52 children), with service fee and tea and cakes included.
BOX OFFICE: https://www.facebook.com/events/698255846988518/.
INFORMATION: 919-740-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHOW: http://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/single-post/2016/12/08/Little-Women-Holiday-Tea, https://www.facebook.com/events/698255846988518/, and https://sonorousroadtheatre.com/little-women/.
PRESENTER: http://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/, https://www.facebook.com/WTFNC/ and https://twitter.com/wtfestivalnc.
Little Women (1868-69 novel): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Women (Wikipedia).
Louisa May Alcott (Germantown, PA-born Boston, MA novelist and poet, 1832-88): http://www.louisamayalcottsociety.org/ (Louisa May Alcott Society), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louisa-May-Alcott (Encyclopædia Britannica), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louisa_May_Alcott (Wikipedia).
Lorelei Lemon (Cary, NC playwright): https://www.facebook.com/lorelei.mellon (Facebook page).
Ashley Popio (Raleigh, NC playwright and director): https://www.facebook.com/lorenzphoto (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.