Sunday 29th June 2014, matinée
Little Women is so iconic that even if you haven’t read the book or seen one of the many films or adaptations, you’ll feel as though you have. This is a generous helping of warm-hearted sentimentality as American as blueberry pie. A semi-autobiographical novel based on Louisa May Alcott’s own childhood experiences and early career as a writer, the story centres around the four March sisters and their life in Concord, Massachusetts during the civil war. Each follows a distinct journey and ultimately their story is captured by Jo, the author who starts out writing sensationalist ‘blood and guts’ stories for money, before discovering that her own story is just as valid.
The material lends itself very well to the musical treatment, with book by Allan Knee, Music by Jason Howland and Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. The music allows a shortcut to emotion without falling into cliché, and there are plenty of colourful characters, fantasy sequences telling Jo’s stories, and of course the closeness and conflict that goes with the intimate and domestic story of four sisters. ‘Little Women’ has also proved an excellent choice for the Royal Academy of Music to show off the talents of its Musical Theatre students, particularly the female ones for whom juicy roles can be hard to come by.
Susanna Squires perfectly captures Jo’s drive and boundless energy – ‘Give me a task to do’ she cries whenever she is feeling restless. We get a sense of her emotional depth as she is put severely to the test, watching everything she cares about threaten to fall apart. Her vocals are powerful, and her songs form an emotional centre for the action, whether conveying the youthful indignation of a young author receiving constructive criticism for the first time in ‘Better’, full of ambition in ‘Astonishing’, or finally finding her metier in an unexpected place in ‘The Fire Within me’. As the eldest sister Meg, Dalia Fadel is a more serious and calming influence, shyer and more modest in her ambitions, but romantic nevertheless. She brings out the comedy beautifully when she falls (literally) head over heels in love with Matt McGoldrick’s charmingly gawky John Brooks. As Amy, Bridget Costello has the tricky task of encapsulating the eternal predicament of the youngest sister – a bit of a spoilt brat who is babied by the others, afflicted with the dreaded ‘hand-me-down’ syndrome, and feeling out of place and ignored. Her transformation from naughty child to sophisticated woman (albeit still unashamedly materialistic) is nicely played out. Claire Harbourne as Beth conveys the sweetness and fragility of the shyest sister Beth, and her ethereally beautiful vocals bring warmth and sadness to the action whether she is effortlessly coaxing Laurie’s grumpy grandfather Mr Laurence (a very convincing Simon Ward) in ‘Off to Massachusetts’ or gently breaking her earthly bonds with her beloved sister Jo in ‘Some Things are Meant to Be’. Josh Maddison has a ball as Laurie, delivering a tour de force of charm and shallowness as the ‘eligible’ rich neighbour who should be the perfect catch for at least one of the sisters – but who will it be? Endlessly enthusiastic and always ready with an optimistic exhortation, his signature number says it all – ‘Take a chance on me’ (no, not that one!). Stephanie Lyse as Marmee conveys the mature wisdom of a mother of four girls without fuss, calmly allowing them just enough freedom before stepping in to adjudicate. We see her vulnerable side in her song ‘Here Alone’ as she tries to write to her absent husband and wonders how she will cope.
It is always refreshing to visit these end of year shows, and to feel optimistic again about the future of Musical Theatre. It is a joy to see a show like this with such a talented cast, skilfully brought together under Paul Warwick Griffin’s direction, and sounding fantastic thanks to Musical Director Bjorn Dobbelaere. We can’t imagine this show being given a better production on the professional stage (hardly surprising given the extensive professional credits of the directors!), and we look forward to seeing some of these familiar faces again in the future.