Opening Nights: Little Women

Little Women

ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., 938-0339, $17–$36.50. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Sat., 3 p.m. Sun., plus 3 p.m. Sat., Dec. 14 & 21. Ends Dec. 29.

Little Women was a fitting title for Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War–era novel, which chronicled the lives of the March women while their father was off to war. Each of the four sisters was given ample attention. But this 2005 musical doesn’t deal in pluralities. All four sisters are still onstage, yet this adaptation is all about Jo, the rebellious sister modeled on Alcott herself.

This might frustrate fans of the bulky novel, but the show yields some pleasant rewards for those willing to accept the conventions of a Broadway musical—including an all-consuming protagonist and the substitution of expository song for character development, courtesy of the show’s creators, Allan Knee, Jason Howland, and Mindi Dickstein.

EmilyRose Frasca attacks the role of Jo with an almost ferocious energy; she’s a spark plug struggling against the confines of class and gender in proper, puritanical Concord, Massachusetts. Her outlet is storytelling, which takes the form of adventure tales—“blood-and-guts stuff”—that she shares with anyone who’ll listen. These are related in frenzied production numbers, where director Matthew Wright turns the dial a bit too high. Jo’s passion verges at times on slapstick; one half-expects steam to shoot out of her ears, or for Frasca’s regrettable red wig—unintentionally clownish—to go full-fright.

Frasca’s performance would be completely overwhelming in the three-hour show (with intermission), except that her big movements are matched with a larger-than-life singing voice, a marvel that lends her character a commanding presence. In comparison, the rest of the cast—with the exception of Patricia Haines-Ainsworth’s delightfully snooty Aunt March—is anemic and too often off-key. Next to our heroine, the other March women’s lives, loves, and losses seem rather pedestrian; but again, this Little Women is all about Jo.

Oddly, Jo’s dominance allows the other performers their best scene. After receiving a response from a New York publisher considering one of her stories, Jo relates the story of a chivalrous knight and damsel-in-distress as the cast performs it behind her. She mimes the swordfights with them and even sings along with their lines. It’s a transfixing shadow duet—the centerpiece of a fine production in which Jo, naturally, lifts everyone else.

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