Theater review

Circle Theatre’s current production of Little Women is definitely family fare, and I’ll go so far as to make the suggestion that tickets to this new show might make a swell holiday gift for friends or family members.

This version of Louisa May Alcott’s perennial tale of four sisters growing up in New England during the Civil War is never too corny or sugar-coated for contemporary audiences. Frankly, the show feels refreshing. In our current era of popular entertainment focusing on the glorification of misbehavior, cars blowing up, or the world ending, this warmly acted production illustrates how families can be a real source of strength for young people. But the characters are often spunky and outspoken, never sappy or preachy. It’s a treat.

Adapted by Bob Knuth and Rani Blair-O’Brien from Alcott’s largely autobiographical novel, this episodic play is ideally suited for the holiday season with its celebration of family solidarity. It shows how siblings with genuine love and compassion deal with some tough complications in their lives. Though they have their occasional squabbles, the four girls of the March family honor each other’s quirks and rally together in times of need.

Director Knuth is focused and assured. His cohesive ensemble plays well off one another.

While their beloved father (Brian Rabinowitz) is away serving as a chaplain in the Union Army, the girls’ strong-willed mother, affectionately called Marmee (Anita Hoffman), holds her family together as best she can, while helping them overcome their various character flaws. Marmee is a model of insight and composure. The family also struggles with what used to be referred to as “genteel poverty.” Yet they are always busy helping others less fortunate. Marmee has taught her daughters that true wealth has to do with the inner values of self-esteem and creativity.

Jo, played by Kieran Welsh-Phillips, is the most imaginative and spirited daughter who dreams of becoming an accomplished writer. This tomboyish character has always been presumed to be based on author Alcott herself and illustrates the dawn of feminism. Jo confronts the options and limitations for women of the 1860s and often refuses to conform to Victorian society. But wisely the adapters do not allow Jo to dominate the story, as in some of the film versions.

Laura McClain portrays Meg, the eldest, most proper and responsible of the daughters. Beth, played by Jill Sesso, is quiet and gentle, an exceptional pianist. (The actress actually accompanies the family’s sing-alongs.)

Amy, the curly-haired, bratty “baby” of the family – the artistic one – is portrayed by Abigail St. John.

Mary Redmon is crusty, cantankerous old Aunt March, a rich widow who lives alone in a mansion nearby. Redmon looks exactly like Queen Victoria, complete with the doily on her head.

Jeremy Myers is the playful, charming teenage boy-next-door who becomes a close ally of the March family and a particular friend of Jo’s. Kevin Anderson is a poor tutor who is smitten with Meg.

A gruff but actually warm-hearted old neighbor is portrayed by Peter Esposito. Eileen Ferguson plays the March family’s loyal maid.

The adaptation pares down some scenes and omits outside locations, yet captures the spirit of the original work, building on the girls’ various character issues, such as Jo’s temper, which is a big issue in the novel.

Let me clarify this production is not the short-lived Broadway musical of 2005. This new Circle premiere is billed as “A Play with Music” but it’s not truly a musical. The songs – mostly Christmas carols – are sung by the ensemble around the piano, and it’s all quite lovely. But these interludes are not production numbers.

In addition to directing and adapting the play, Knuth also designed the charming parlor set, complete with staircase and a recessed piano area. All scenes take place in this one setting.

There are many loving touches that contribute to this glowing theatrical experience. Several aromatic cinnamon-scented candles even burn along the side of the auditorium, filling the area with the wonderful scent of holiday time.