Actors shine in a longish modern spin on beloved ‘Little Women’ at Stratford

Lindsay Wu, left, Verónica Hortigüela, Brefny Caribou, and Allison Edwards-Crewe in Stratford Festival’s “Little Women.”
Lindsay Wu, left, Verónica Hortigüela, Brefny Caribou, and Allison Edwards-Crewe in Stratford Festival’s “Little Women.”

This Stratford Festival production for family audiences appears driven by two contrary impulses.

One is a commitment to deliver all the familiar aspects of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved autobiographical novel, which contributes to it being extremely long — nearly three hours including an intermission. The other is a desire to underscore the story’s relevance to today by having all the music be contemporary, so that, for example, pop songs are played at 19th-century dances.

But the material doesn’t need the special pleading nor the reverence: the show shines thanks to the actors’ splendid work bringing the characters’ vivid personalities to life and evoking the passions and travails of the March family during the American Civil War era. Its excessive length, though, weighs it down.

Jordi Mand’s adaptation as directed by Esther Jun begins with a delightful flourish. The curtain rises on a large stage with nothing on it but a trunk which reveals itself to have Mary Poppins-like powers. Allison Edwards-Crewe, who plays Jo, pulls out whole pieces of furniture from the trunk and soon the other three actors playing the March sisters emerge from it, initially dressed in contemporary clothes.

Allison Edwards-Crewe as Jo March in "Little Women" is winning as the coltish, outspoken Jo, writes Karen Fricker, who is running the whole show: after nearly every scene she turns to the audience and offers narration on what's happening.

As they perform the play’s opening scene, they put on their period costumes (designed by A.W. Nadine Grant) as backdrops representing the March house and its garden (designed by Teresa Przybylski) are flown in, and Kaileigh Krysztofiak’s excellent lighting shifts to suggest an interior space.

This is a wonderful invitation to play “let’s pretend” with the actors and works so well in drawing the audience into the story that it felt unnecessary that the music be contemporary too.

And then we’re off, as the March girls gather on Christmas morning, terribly missing their father — who’s away serving as a chaplain in the war — and adoring their mother Marmee (Irene Poole). While the Marches themselves are struggling financially, Marmee urges the girls to share what they have with a local family who are desperately poor. This act of kindness is rewarded when the wealthy neighbour James Laurence (John Koensgen) sends them a lavish Christmas meal, and a friendship is struck between Jo and Laurie Laurence, James’s son (Richard Lam).

Edwards-Crewe is winning as the coltish, outspoken Jo, who is running the whole show: after nearly every scene she turns to the audience and offers narration on what’s happening. Lam is charming as Laurie and there is good chemistry between him and Edwards-Crewe. The production’s anchor is Poole’s Marmee: throughout she is deeply convincing as a loving mother holding her family together against the odds. When her worry about her absent husband and sickly daughter Beth (Brefny Caribou) seeps through, it’s compelling in its understatement. Verónica Hortigüela is also very strong as the virtuous eldest sister Meg.

While the story is initially engaging, the sheer number of episodes becomes heavy. Mand has included both halves of the book which extends into Meg’s marriage to John Brooke (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) and Jo’s adventures in New York getting her work published and building a bond with the tutor Prof. Bhaer (Rylan Wilkie). Particularly in the second half, the production sags: Some actors start to speak so fast that it’s hard to understand the lines, and Laurie’s fecklessness — an important plot point in a budding romance between him and youngest sister Amy (Rose Tuong at the performance reviewed, stepping in for Lindsay Wu) — seems to come out of nowhere.

The muti-generational, female-dominated audience at the performance I attended hung on with the show and many were on their feet during the splashy curtain call highlighting the work of movement director Alyssa Martin. I’d have liked to have been dancing with them, but the length of the show wore me out.

Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KarenFricker2

Little Women

By Louisa May Alcott, adapted by Jordi Mand, directed by Esther Jun. Runs through Oct. 29 at theAvon Theatre, 99 Downie St., Stratford. and 800-567-1600.


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