Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester.
15 & 21 November 2017.
Manchester’s musical mill is warming up another revival for a surely inevitable transfer to London. This time they’re hosting the European premiere of ‘Little Women – The Musical’.
The musical version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, premiered on Broadway back in 2005, views the lives of the March sisters very much from (second sister) Jo’s perspective. The show opens in New York where Jo’s efforts at writing are meeting with little success. After another rejection from a publisher, her friend (and admirer) Professor Bhaer suggests that she draw on her own life for inspiration. And so back we go in time. To small town life in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War and to her sisters Meg, Beth, Amy and their mother, Marmee.
To be honest, initially I was slightly worried. Unfamiliar with the score, the first few songs left me fearful of drowning in a syrupy tidal wave of strings & sentiment. Fortunately, ‘Could You’, a spiky duet between rebellious tomboy Jo and her snobby Aunt March livened things up no end. As they negotiated over Jo’s ability to be more of a ‘lady’ in return for a paid trip to Europe, the humour and mock-operatic stylings were a fizzy delight. From then on, Jason Howland’s rich and varied score hit its stride.
‘Astonishing’ and ‘The Fire Within Me’ are the show’s (and Jo’s) big stand out numbers and refreshingly they are songs about ambition, self-fulfilment and the power of sisterhood. It’s left to Jo’s two male suitors to yearn for romance with ‘Take A Chance on Me’ and ‘Here I Am’. There are also cheerful witty diversions such as ‘The Most Amazing Thing’. ‘Off To Massachusetts’ a piano duet between Beth and Mr Laurence is used to good effect. The first time it’s a jolly accompaniment to the discovery of a shared pleasure between the gentle young woman and her stuffy older neighbour. When it’s reprised later, Beth’s health is deteriorating and it becomes a defiant musical journey – a celebration of shopping, dancing and dining out in the big city, which only serves to emphasise her shrinking real life horizons.
Nik Corrall’s inventive set design focuses in on the creative elements of the sisters’ lives with Jo’s attic room (where she does all her writing) to one side and a piano on the other. To the back of the stage is a house-shaped structure that seems to symbolise Jo’s home as the source of her inspiration. Jo’s family, friends and fictional characters open doors and emerge from within it. The structure fully opens out – its two halves like pages from which stories unfold in Jo’s life or her busy imagination. Scenes are created within the outline of the house. As characters ice skate, fly a kite or repose in silhouette there’s a striking two-dimensional quality, almost like illustrations within a book. Ben M Rogers’s lighting design is a particular pleasure – creating layers of atmosphere and warmth across a largely bare space.
Understandably, this is a heavily filleted and tightly condensed version of the novel. While Mindi Dickstein’s lyrics carry things along smoothly, the script could do with a slight ironing out. Its spirited irreverent humour is very welcome but it can occasionally be downright clunky. Arriving back from Europe, Amy affects to speak French at every opportunity and it’s very funny, so is there really any need for Marmee to heavy-handedly comment on it? What Allan Knee’s book does bring though is a foot firmly on the accelerator. The show flies by.
While it foregrounds the difficulties of the creative process and the experiences of a struggling writer, there’s an equally strong focus on the sisters and the tug of family ties. Some scattered references to death in the first half seem designed to foreshadow the events to come later. When death does come, it’s handled with sensitivity and is genuinely moving.
The ten strong cast are full of energy. Despite the period costumes, these characters (the sisters especially) feel very modern and relevant. Amie-Giselle Ward is a restless, spirited Jo and her vocal prowess is matched by an expansive physicality. Cathy Read brings a beautiful calm purity of voice to the mix as frail Beth and Connor Hughes’s Laurie is totally charming. As Amy, Katie Marie-Carter is a welcome explosion of self-absorption, a pouty prima donna. It’s a wonderful performance that brings a funny and refreshing sharpness to what could otherwise be an overly wholesome dramatic cocktail.
Cleverly crafted and passionately performed it’s a hugely entertaining show that’s clearly designed to appeal across the generations. Focusing on the sister fighting to step outside of society’s restrictions on women brings added grit. For all the family friendly frills and froth, Bronagh Lagan’s ‘Little Women’ also packs a fierce fist-pump of defiance. Go Jo!