Now in its seventh year, the Eagle Theatre presents an energetic revival of Little Women, The Musical (2005) through Feb. 25. The production is a triumph of production values and ensemble performance over material.
Jo March (Kimberly Suskind) is Louisa May Alcott's alter ego. Although spunky Jo has strong role models in mother Marmee (April Woodall) and cantankerous Aunt March (Marianne Green), she needs to find her own way to womanhood.
With her pensive looks and radiant smiles, Suskind is irresistible in the star role. In a clear mezzo voice, Suskind stops the show twice. She belts out "Astonishing" at the end of Act 1, and "The Fire Within Me" late in Act 2, when Jo finally leaves her attic refuge to write Little Women and transcend a family tragedy.
Others have their moments. Written in the shadow of the Civil War slaughter, Little Women explores the theme that everyone's life has meaning. Under director Ted Wioncek III, each character is bigger than life, with a boost from the shifting spotlights of the light designer, Chris Miller, and the gorgeous costumes of Ashleigh Poteat. But the story's beating heart always comes back to Jo.
Eagle Theatre overcomes a formidable obstacle: the musical's uninspired songbook. None of composer Jason Howland's 20-some numbers has a developed melodic line. And the lyrics of Mindi Dickstein are straightforward declarations, largely allergic to wit and wordplay. But the orchestration of Jason Neri and his six-piece ensemble helps save the day.
The book by Alan Knee swaps novelistic detail for the grand theatrical moment. Bratty, young Amy (Colleen Murphy) burns Jo's manuscript. Mr. Laurence (Don Green) bonds with tragic Beth (Victoria Mozitis) over the piano duet "Off to Massachusetts." Laurie (Will Stephan Connell) proposes to Jo ("Take a Chance on Me") while the romance between Meg (Maggie Griffin-Smith) and John Brooke (Max Meyers) blossoms, in the tune "More than I Am."
The Eagle Theatre's Innovation Factory, a collective of artists who work with hi-tech effects, is the show's unsung hero. You see this musical as much as you hear it. In the first scene, Jo acts out her melodrama, "An Operatic Tragedy." Along with her audience, Professor Bhaer (Tim Rinehart), we are flabbergasted as a dozen hidden characters pop in and out of wall panels, in a blaze of light and color.
All night, this Jack-in-the-box stage is a magical place, achieving unity through dreamlike reverie. The production mimics the fuzzy way we relive big events. And while the show is about Jo growing up to write Little Women, it is also about our own relationship to a classic coming-of-age novel and the issues it raises.