By Kendall Tamer
BU News Service
A young woman, Miss Josephine March, played by Sirena Abalian, receives yet another rejection from yet another publisher.
“22!” She laments to her fellow boarding house tenant, Professor Bhaer.
The set is eclectic and fascinatingly messy, with patterned carpets on staircases and stacks of drawers and doors and furniture. Rafters frame the stage with cursive writing scrawled across them, as if inviting you into the pages of a book. It’s a little chaotic, but also charming and homey – which sets the tone for the rest of the show.
In the first scene, Josephine, or Jo, reads one of her famed stories aloud to the Professor, and a shadow cast takes the stage to act out what she sees in her mind, in the form of an upbeat musical number. The characters gesticulate and sing in melodramatic unison with their exuberant narrator. It’s a delightful opening to “Little Women: The Musical” and leaves the audience clapping and excited for more.
However, it doesn’t maintain that momentum. The rest of the play shows the four lead actresses valiantly battling against a lackluster script and a wanting performance from their Laurie. The song and dance interludes are light and silly, but are fighting a losing battle against poor script work.
When we leave present-Jo to time travel back to Concord, Massachusetts, and the Little Women’s childhood home, things get a bit bumpy. The pace of some scenes begins to drag, and Abalian’s dedicated efforts to bring energy into every moment sometimes come across as over-the-top and exaggerated.
The introduction of Jo’s best friend, Laurie, played by Maxwell Seelig, doesn’t help, as his performance leaves something to be desired, especially on the coattails of the Oscar nominated film starring Timothee Chalamet in the same role. While Chalamet brings an attractive snark to Laurie, some of Seelig’s best lines land awkwardly and ill-timed, despite his excellent singing voice. Ultimately, his performance never fully gives the impression that he feels anything more for Jo than platonic love.
Post-intermission, another, longer musical number is a much needed breath of fresh air back into the show. The directorial choice to have the other actors and actresses play characters to bring Jo’s story to life is brilliant: Meg as the leading lady, Mr. Brooke as the man trying to take her away, Amy as the troll and Mr. Laurence as the sad, old knight.
All of these clever little insights give the audience a peak into the way Jo’s mind might imagine her story looking, an awful lot like the people in her own life, and draws insightful parallels to her relationships with those people. For instance, Laurie being seen as the hero, Rodrigo, at the start of the scene, but the true hero being revealed as Beth, posing as a man, all along at the end.
Overall, the four sisters are entertaining and vocally talented. Abalian as Jo has a strong belt and excellent comedic timing.Though sometimes her delivery does come on a bit too strong, again, especially compared to her Hollywood counterpart, Saiorise Ronan’s, controlled intensity.
Meg, the romantic eldest sister, is bubbly, and her chemistry with Mr. Brooke, Laurie’s tutor, is a joy to watch. Their duet, “More Than I am” is a gorgeous piece of music, and their voices meld beautifully. Amy is terribly petulant in the best way possible, with Emilia Tagaliani’s performance eliciting delicious distaste you love to hate.
And then there’s Beth. Beth March is the unsung hero of “Little Women: The Musical.” She is kind and gentle. She encourages and builds up her sisters, generously gives their Christmas tree to the less fortunate, thaws the heart of the curmudgeonly Mr. Laurence and helps Amy and Jo to mend things after their explosive fight. Abigail Mack, the young woman playing her, is a melodious songbird, and she plays the role with such sweetness and earnestness that it is impossible not to adore her.
Mack perfectly emulates the quiet importance of Beth as she pushes the story forward from the sidelines, rarely taking the spotlight from her three sisters, until her untimely passing. Employing the classic trope “The Good Die Young,” even in death, her absence affects the rest of the story, pushing Josephine to write her manuscript for “Little Women.”
“Little Women: The Musical” at the Wheelock Family Theatre is funny and filled with a frenzied energy. The songs, through no fault of the cast, are nothing groundbreaking — mostly just amusing additions to an already classic story, but the sets and the costumes impress, and the show would make a great night out for the family. Despite some hiccups, for the most part, it hits the mark.
“Little Women: The Musical” premiered Jan. 31 and will be in the Wheelock Family Theatre until Feb. 23.