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Theater Review : 'Little Women' Seem Uneasy in Spotlight

November 18, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WESTMINSTER — What is it about Louisa May Alcott's huge novel, "Little Women," that keeps making it seem attractive to the stage and screen?

There have been more than a half-dozen Los Angeles-area stage productions in recent years, and Gillian Armstrong's film version is about to appear--the fourth since George Cukor's in 1933. For good measure, Westminster Community Theatre is weighing in with its own "Little Women," the one adapted by Marian De Forest.

So, what is it? The episodic narrative of the March sisters in the Civil War era is not the stuff of high drama. It is instead a reflective, highly character-driven series of frames in a tapestry of an American family,

Jo March is still a terrific model for young women who want to be all that they can be, and not a bad heroine either. But Alcott's domestic epic hardly fits neatly into Hollywood's three-act story structure or theater's own conventions. Good, large novels seldom do.

The need for more and more "Little Women" comes down to the need to read the novel once again, in a different way. De Forest's version is better than a few others we've seen, which either got bogged down in too many scenes, or grossly simplified Alcott's complex characters. De Forest retains much of Alcott's dialogue and is intensely devoted to Jo and her three sisters, with everyone else firmly in the background.

That's probably the best strategy for a stage edition that hopes to clock in at under three hours. More time is saved with voice-over narration (Jo's) that compresses and omits long, easily skipped over passages from the book.

De Forest also immediately helps delineate the foursome: the independent, literary Jo (Candice Balish); the nice, conformist Meg (Jennifer Robbins); lady-in-training Amy (Monica Welton), and sickly, vulnerable Beth (Julie Messina). There's no overly obvious emphasis on Jo, the perfect woman writer's alter-ego; instead, a fair hearing is given to all the little women.

In the end, though, it becomes Jo's story, as she falls for the unlikely older man, Prof. Bhaer (Warren Harker). In love with a Schiller scholar--now that's what makes Alcott's book an enduring literary romance.

Still, it has to fly on stage, regardless of all of De Forest's pruning and tidying.

Director Jennifer Boudreau's cast feels uncomfortable with the 19th-Century talk and manners. A bad sense of let's-dress-up runs through the production, and it tends to trivialize Alcott's and De Forest's work.

These sisters, for instance, don't sound as though they've lived with each other's foibles. The point is that they've learned to live with and love each other; here, they're unnaturally commenting on each other as the script instructs. It's as if the actors were still rehearsing with script in hand.

Robbins is likable, but doesn't give Meg an identity, while Balish's Jo is too cool to let us feel the heat of Jo's passions. Welton has a way to go before she theatricalizes Amy's primness, which finally comes through in the end. Messina evokes Beth's physical frailty, but not really her tragedy.

Those background characters are especially so here, since so few actors want to take charge. Jesse Swimm does as jolly family friend Laurie, but the March parents, played by Marc LeBlanc and Karla Abrams, don't project any sense of authority that makes this family survive the national turbulence just outside the door. Harker's Bhaer doesn't exactly command our attention, which makes us wonder why he commands Jo's. Nancy Noble isn't nearly nasty enough as the dreaded Aunt March.

* "Little Women," Westminster Community Theatre, 7272 Maple St., Westminster. Fridays-Saturdays, 8:30 p.m.; matinee Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 3. $9-$10. (714) 527-5546. Running time: 2 hours. Candice Balish: Jo

Jennifer Robbins: Meg

Monica Welton: Amy

Julie Messina: Beth

Karla Abrams: Mrs. March

Marc LeBlanc: Mr. March

Nancy Noble: Aunt March

Jesse Swimm: Laurie

Warren Harker: Prof. Bhaer

Tony Grande: Mr. Laurence

Joel Ray Ibanez: John

A Westminster Community Theatre production of Marian De Forest's adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel. Directed by Jennifer Boudreau. Set: Bronson. Lights: Aaron Abrams. Costumes: June Steneck and Sandi Newcomb.

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