The Broadway musical version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic Civil War story, “Little Women,” will receive its professional Wichita premiere when the 2005 show opens Friday at Crown Uptown Theatre.
The beloved story about four sisters coping with war deprivation and coming of age during the four-year absence of their soldier father is one that Matthew Rumsey has been eager to stage since he first saw it on Broadway.
“This is such a true, honest story about family relations during wartime,” said Rumsey, producing artistic director for the Crown. “It’s about having to cut back during hard times, which bonds them all the more. It’s something that families today can relate to.”
“I love everything about it, from the period costumes to the music and vocalizations, which are larger than life, to the message to keep pressing forward no matter how bad things get. When I saw it on Broadway, I said I was going to have to do this show.”
It’s also a show that Rumsey proudly describes as “tremendously G-rated” for family audiences, coming in a season with more sophisticated adult fare, including “Sweeney Todd” and the upcoming “Spring Awakening.”
Alcott’s semiautobiographical story dates from 1869 and tells of the four March sisters — tomboyish Jo, motherly Meg, frivolous Amy and sweetly uncomplicated Beth — of Concord, Mass., learning about life and death and, ultimately, finding love and purpose.
Hollywood has come up with five versions so far, from silents in 1917 and 1918 to talkies in 1933 (with Katharine Hepburn and Joan Bennett), 1949 (with June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor) and the most recent in 1994 with Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst and Trini Alvarado.
There also were at least two TV-movie treatments, plus an opera. But this is the only Broadway musical — credited to writer Allan Knee, lyricist Mindi Dickstein and composer Jason Howland. Songs range from haunting ballads, including the death-bed anthem “Some Things Are Meant to Be,” to contemporary showstoppers, including Jo’s step toward her dream as a writer in “Astonishing.”
Playing the four sisters are Brittney Morton as Jo, Natalie Swanner as Meg, Catherine Bortomeo as Amy and Lindsay Woppert as Beth. Stephanie Dennis is Marmee, the girls’ wise mother, who guides the household while her husband is away at war serving as chaplain to the Union Army. Charleen Ayers is their rich and intimidating Aunt March, who is determined to make proper ladies of them all — particularly Jo.
Nick Anastasia is Theodore “Laurie” Laurence III, the handsome boy next door who feels part of the March family. Joe Consiglio is Mr. Brooke, Laurie’s straight-laced tutor, who finds himself attracted to the sisters. Donald Winsor is Professor Bhaer, who takes a personal interest in Jo’s writing. And Mark Clark is Mr. Laurence, Laurie’s stern grandfather and guardian. Keri Engle is Mrs. Kirk, who runs a boarding house where some of them live.
“Jo is very tomboyish with the potential to be a writer when most people think she should just learn to be a lady and marry well,” said actress Morton, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and now is based in New York City. “She has so much spunk. She is a go-getter who speaks out of turn a little too often, but that is part of her charm.”
“Jo is also very devoted to her family — so much so she doesn’t want anything to change. But that makes her a bit selfish because she wants to have her own adventures,” Morton said. “I like that she wants to be her own self rather than try to fit society’s expectations.”
Swanner sees her Meg character as a traditionalist who fits well into the era.
“Meg is the oldest and very motherly to her younger sisters, even when they get tired of it. All she wants to do is to get married and have babies. She is a very traditional young woman,” said Swanner, a Texas native and graduate of Friends University who has become a Crown regular. She most recently was Winnie in “Annie Get Your Gun.”
“I enjoy playing Meg because she is very opposite of me. It gives me a chance to explore motivations different than mine. I am extremely independent, while she is not. She just wants to be a homemaker, while I can’t conceive of being a wife and mother. I don’t have time,” Swanner said with a laugh. “If Meg has a flaw, it’s that she’s too good, too perfect. It’s fun to play that.”
Bortomeo said that her Amy loves to be the center of attention.
“Amy is the youngest and kind of spoiled. She’s 12 at the beginning and is just all over the place. I get to throw childish fits, which is kind of fun since I’m usually cast as ingenues. But she also really wants to be in society like her Aunt March,” said Bortomeo, a New Orleans native with a master’s in voice from Wichita State University who has performed with Wichita Grand Opera.
“Amy has a talent for manipulating people, making them cater to her,” Bortomeo said. “But her strength is that, while she always wants to be the center of attention, she genuinely is devoted to her family.”
Woppert sees Beth as the peacemaker in the family, the selfless sister who puts everybody’s needs ahead of her own.
“Beth is the quiet sister who is content to just stay at home and take care of everyone. She isn’t interested in the larger outside world. I’ve heard her described as ‘too angelic for this world,’ ” said Woppert, a Milwaukee native recently transplanted to Dallas.
“Beth is also an old soul. She contracts scarlet fever and tells her family that she is not afraid to die,” Woppert said. “She tells them she hasn’t made any plans and won’t miss anything because she feels she has already fulfilled her purpose. If I have a favorite moment, it’s when she sings ‘Let me go now.’ It’s very emotional.”
Leading a 10-piece orchestra is music director Jesse Warkentin, who also will be at the keyboards. Set is by Gregory R. Crane, period costumes by Kathy Page-Hauptman and props by Darian Leatherman.