A&E

Review: Song and sentiment

'Little Women' features a superb ensemble and an inspirational message

TheatreWorks has done it again. With a superb ensemble, beautiful production values, and a warm, inspirational message fitting the season, "Little Women" will capture your heart and fill it with joy.

The book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein do a great job of capturing the beloved novel by Louisa May Alcott, and the songs truly underscore the emotions and thoughts of the characters. It's a charming musical, and TheatreWorks gives it first-class treatment.

Alcott's fictional family of Marmee (Elizabeth Ward Land) and her four daughters struggles to maintain hope and positive spirits while father serves as a chaplain for Union forces during the U.S. Civil War. Rural Concord, Mass., provides a genial backdrop for the young girls' antics as they play together, argue, learn and grow.

Our storyteller is Jo (Emily Koch), the tomboy of the group. An ambitious writer, she loves to write "blood and guts" stories for the girls to melodramatically act out, playing roles matching their personalities: Meg (Sharon Rietkerk), the oldest, shy and pretty; Beth (Julia Belanoff), sweet, kind and supportive; and Amy (Palo Alto High School graduate Arielle Fishman), the youngest, with social ambitions of her own. Amy is aided by Aunt March (Elizabeth Palmer), a bastion of society who tries in vain to convert Jo and then shifts her focus to willing and pliable Amy.

When the curmudgeonly Mr. Laurence (Richard Farrell) across the street takes in his orphaned grandson, Laurie (Matt Dengler), the girls acquire a brother/friend, and potential mate. Meg finds her mate in Laurie's tutor, John Brooke (Justin Buchs), but Jo's sights are fixed on fame instead of marriage, and that takes her to a New York boarding house and an unlikely friendship with Professor Bhaer (Christopher Vettel). That's actually where the musical begins, mid-point in Jo's pursuit of publication, cleverly establishing her ambition and bold personality.

Jo's experiences and discoveries make for a wonderful coming-of-age story, revealing Alcott's priorities of love, family and meaningful endeavors. There's plenty about the wrong-headed values of so-called polite society and how it hinders the true passion of young women like Jo, those who might not "fit in" but who are destined for great achievement. But that's balanced by big doses of familial and romantic love, and the value of loyalty. It puts the warmth in an inspiring and touching tale of following one's heart.

The ensemble for this show is practically perfect, all well cast and possessing excellent acting and vocal skills. Koch is brilliant as Jo, with a fine, strong voice and the requisite feistiness and fun. She lights up the stage with passion, yet is equally adept at delivering Jo's underlying vulnerability and sensitivity. The vocal blend with her sisters or in her duets with Dengler or Vettel is terrific, and she also shines in her solos.

She's well-matched by Fishman, Rietkerk, Belanoff and Land: not a weak link among them. Whether in solos, duets or ensemble numbers, the group sounds fantastic, and dances it up with verve and boundless energy. Add Dengler in the mix and it's sheer delight. Land has a couple of solos to show off her rich mezzo, Buchs and Palmer get their turns, and Vettel reveals vocal chops with his solo.

Joe Ragey has surpassed himself with the gorgeous set, designed for easy and fast scene changes; the airy openness and vast backdrop aid in the mood and memory of the piece. Superb lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and colorful period costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt create a lovely nostalgic feel, making a lovely picture postcard from America's past. Director Robert Kelley brings it all together with lively staging, and gets the heart right.

You will laugh, you might shed a tear, but you'll leave with that supremely satisfying feeling after a terrific evening's entertainment. This is live theater at its finest: a tremendous gift for us this holiday season.

Info: "Little Women" runs through Jan. 4 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Shows are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $19-$73. Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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