Through Feb. 3
Nashville Children’s Theatre
724 2nd Ave. S.
For show times and ticket information, call 254-9103
Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel Little Women is one of those beloved American institutions. Millions have been touched by its warmhearted tale of the March family enduring the hardships of life during the Civil War while Father March is off with the Union army. The March daughtersJo, Meg, Beth, and Amycarry on courageously, seeking love, friendship, a place in society, and, perhaps most of all, renewal in the bonds of sisterhood. This story has had many film and television treatments, most prominently in 1933, starring Katharine Hepburn; in 1949, starring Elizabeth Taylor and June Allyson; and in 1994, starring Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, and Claire Danes. All have proven popular, primarily because the films have been able to delve deeply enough into the fairly complex family relationships to reveal genuine insights into character and motivation.
Nashville Children’s Theatre is currently doing a production of Little Women, using a script written by Paulette Laufer. It’s a suitably earnest staging, to be sure, and all the pieces would seem to be in place for success. The triumph is minimized, however, because what we get is a kind of CliffsNotes version of the story. The play runs about 75 minutes in lengthwithout an intermissionand while it does touch on the major events in the Marches’ lives, it seems hardly long enough to render them affecting.
This state of affairs probably begs questions about the nature of children’s theater, with its tendency to offer fare that is necessarily abbreviated in deference to the young audience. But within these parameters, some things work better than others. As a means to expose young people to the basic characters and plot elements of Little Women, NCT’s production is unqualifiedly good. But as a piece of theater based on a literary classic, its once-over-lightly approach leaves much to be desired, especially in a story that hinges so much on intricate intrafamily interaction.
Chalk up the results here, then, to the more frustrating side of children’s-theater culture: The package of bonbons looks pretty on the outside, tied up neatly with ribbons, but the candy inside is rather bland.
NCT has brought in Mockingbird Public Theatre’s Rene Copeland to direct the play. She moves all the actors around sufficiently on Anne L. Willingham’s useful, tasteful setting, which is in turn lit warmly by Karen Creel. Patricia Taber’s costumes are also quite nice, and Dan Brewer’s sound design offers some movingly appropriate musical moments.
As for the performances, they are generally pretty good, though no one really rises above the superficial material. Holly Allen carries the lion’s share of the load as Jo, the imaginative March girl who makes a career for herself as a writer. She offers a clear, intelligent, if uninspired reading of her part, and her energy throughout is a definite plus. Jenny Littleton as Meg and Mary Tanner Bailey as Beth turn in suitably professional characterizations. Misty Lewis’ performance as the youngest March, Amy, is more problematic. She certainly has the necessary zest for the role, but Lewis has a tendency to overemotedare we say it?as if she’s playing children’s theater. More subtlety and more understatement would probably be in line (and without losing the kids’ attention).
Rona Carter plays the March matriarch, in addition to two other minor roles; she brings some presence to the task but not much else. Brandon Boyd is capable, if unremarkable, doing double duty as the March girls’ suitors. Finally, the versatile and talented Henry Haggard is on hand, playing no fewer than four roles. Haggard is a pro, and he rolls through his chores effectively, including a somewhat curious turn in drag as the imperious Aunt March. As a sight gag designed to elicit an automatic chuckle from the audience, this gimmick scoreseven the kids got the joke.
This is a perfectly watchable production. Parents bringing their children to NCT will be treated, at the very least, to the company’s usual high technical standards, some solid performances, and some introductory-level cultural exposure. If this is all that we ask of so-called children’s theater, then Little Women is a winner. But whether this adaptation is worth doing in the first place is another matter altogether.
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