‘Little Women’: delightful and astonishing
This past weekend the Undergraduate Theater Collective put on “Little Women.” The musical is adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s eponymous 1868 novel. As someone who grew up in a family of many sisters, I have loved and related to this story since I first encountered the book in elementary school. This novel has touched the lives of so many young women, and I’m not alone in identifying with the four March sisters in different ways. At times I’m the hopeful Beth, the indignant Amy, the romantic Meg or the headstrong Jo. Watching the actresses play these archetypal American sisters was cathartic, breathtaking and sometimes humorous and surprising.
I was blown away by the cast’s ability to bring this timeless story to life in the Carl J. Shapiro Campus Center theater. Elizabeth Hilliard ’22, who played the protagonist Jo March, is a powerhouse onstage. She carried the ensemble through the tragedies and triumphs of the March family. Her sisters, orbiting around her with their own dramas and character developments, Meg (Caroline Kriesen ’20), Beth (Sophie Lee ’21) and Amy (Sophia Seufert ’22), held their own as well. The romantic interests of the sisters — Laurie (Seth Wulf ’21), Mr. Brooks (Alex Ross ’22), and Professor Bhaer (Harrison Paek ’22) — were adequately charming and bumbling, capturing the hearts of the audience as they did the hearts of the sisters. I was particularly impressed by Adina Jacobson’s ’20 transformation into Marmie March, the matriarch of the family. We have seen Jacobson embody many different characters in her theater career at Brandeis, but the wise, rock-solid and, at times, humorous mother to the wild March sisters is perhaps my favorite role I’ve seen her play.
One challenge in student theater is having actors between the ages of 18 and 22 play characters well out of their age range. Going into this play, I didn’t know what to expect of the elderly Mr. Lawrence and Aunt March, two crotchety and sometimes terrifying older figures in the girls’ lives. Max LeBlanc ’22 and Emma Johnston ’22 both did a terrific job of becoming these elderly characters, who represent the old world of proper etiquette and restrictive gender roles that the March girls rage against. Overall, this was a very cohesive cast, filling out the many personalities of Alcott’s world.
This show couldn’t have felt as cohesive as it did without a strong and involved production staff. This production was surely a big undertaking for director Rose Freudberg ’20, stage manager Liam Gladding ’21, music director David Girardin ’22 and choreographer Liora Lilienthal ’20, as it runs about two and a half hours long with 23 musical numbers and several dance numbers. I could tell this was a labor of love for Freudberg, since all the actors seemed to just be having the time of their lives onstage. The result of everyone’s hard work was a show that ran smoothly and visually was stunning. The movement, transitions and music felt organic, yet transcendent. I loved all the waltzes and old-fashioned dances Lilienthal led the actors through, and Girardin’s music direction resulted in the feeling of a modern musical telling an enduring story, with well-balanced and excellent vocals and blend. The eight-piece orchestra — the biggest I’ve ever seen in a UTC production — helped fill the theater with the song. I especially enjoyed Aaron Newitt’s ’21 contributions on the piano. I must also mention costume designer Rosie Sentman ’22, whose pieces were believable and, as it happens, adorable, with a quaint New England style and color scheme for all the sisters. I can tell many hours of love went into those hoop dresses! Set designer and master carpenter Micah Alexander ’22 clearly put hours into the elaborate set, complete with multi-level platforms, an attic and an office. The effect of this somehow made the stage look both bigger, and still reminiscent of the cramped March house.
There was one element of the production that I left the theater feeling lukewarm about, which was a blending of historic and contemporary dress. The show included an additional ensemble of four women, dressed as contemporary elementary or middle school students. These “characters” wandered on and off stage reading copies of Little Women, and, at times, mimicking what the characters were doing onstage, like dancing or ice skating. This was a sweet touch, reminding the audience that this story remains exciting to today’s youth, perhaps even implying that the whole musical was happening in these girls’ heads. This would have been enough of an added modern touch for me, but Jo and Professor Bhaer also wore modern dress in the scenes taking place after Jo has moved to New York. This decision confused me. It may have been to show that Jo was living a more modern life in New York, but all it did was take me out of the story. Directors nowadays often feel that historical pieces will not be relatable to the modern audience, and feel compelled to change something in the production, like putting Macbeth in military fatigues or having Carmen ride onstage on a motorcycle. All this accomplishes is taking the audience out of the world of the story. People still want to see historical stories because they are timeless and relatable human stories. There is no need to modernize them, because if we still want to see them in 2019, we are clearly not uncomfortable with the old-fashionedness of them.
The UTC has had a strained relationship at times with period pieces in recent years. Perhaps the memories of the contentious 2018 production of “And Then There Were None,” though its issues weren’t related to this show, left some nervousness around producing another adaptation of a classic novel. The decision to include these characters in “Little Women” in modern dresses may have felt like a fresh idea, but it reminded me of recent productions on this campus of “Into the Woods” and “Godspell,” which also included narrators or characters in modern clothing. We have some incredibly talented student actors on campus, and I think they can hold their own and carry a production without the crutch of a modern twist.
Overall, “Little Women” went on without a hitch and the audience was engaged and, if they felt like I did, I’m sure had a great time. As for me, I cried twice: once while Hilliard and Lee were singing “Some Things Are Meant to Be” and again while Jacobson sang “Days of Plenty.” “Little Women” is a powerful story and this production brought that power to our campus. It was a very good choice of musical for the UTC, and I can’t imagine a better production staff and cast.
— Editor’s Note: Staff cartonist Harrison Paek is a member of the cast.