Christopher Columbus! Can you hear that beautiful noise coming from the eastern edge of Washtenaw County? Listen carefully. Something really magical is happening in a small jewel box of a theater on the campus of Washtenaw Community College. One Off Productions – I love that name! – is presenting Little Women, the Broadway musical none of us remember but all of us should.
I had heard of the show; I knew Sutton Foster and Maureen McGovern, of all people, were in the original run; and I believe I had heard a song or two. Obviously, the forward-thinking novel by Louisa May Alcott, depicting the inner and outer lives of the four plucky March sisters – adventuresome Jo, fiery Amy, stately Meg, and dear-hearted Beth – and their noble mother Marmee as they survive and thrive in New England in the midst of the Civil War is emblazoned in our collective cultural subconscious. However, I had never had a chance to see this musical, originally produced in New York in 2005. And that’s a shame. Grateful, however, that One Off has brought this beautiful, sophisticated score and delicately nuanced adaptation for the enjoyment of Southeastern Michigan audiences.
As iconic Jo, Sarah Mills, wearing many other production hats including director and producer, affects a thoughtful and poised narrative arc from earnest kid to battle-tested author, never maudlin, always heartfelt, and at times delightfully comedic. I attended last night’s final dress rehearsal (which as expected had its share of 11th hour technical distractions), so it would be interesting to see how she settles into the role, adding nuance as the run proceeds.
Mills is also a gifted vocalist, as is the entirety of this remarkable cast. Her act one closer “Astonishing” is exactly that. Hearing such strong, classically trained voices in such a small and intimate space, delivering what is, in essence, a light operatic score is a treat.
Wendy Cave is spot on in the role of Amy, by turns heartbreaking and maddening in her character’s impulses but always compelling. As Meg, Morgan Gagnon is lovely and gracious with just the right touch of playfulness to offset the show’s heavier moments. In the pivotal role of Beth, upon whom hangs the story’s tragic narrative impetus, Mills’ real-life sister Rebecca Timmons is a quiet storm. She is at her strongest one on one with the other characters in the show and her final interactions with Mills are appropriately devastating. She also is a gifted comedic actor, and her timid, bewildered, and bemused take on the rather odd number “Off to Massachusetts” is a hoot.
Elizabeth Mitchell as the sum and center of the March family universe – Marmee – offers a poignant but refreshingly lighthearted take on the role. She has a remarkable and distinctive singing voice, with the acting chops to accentuate that innate talent. Her solo moments of reflection on stage as a mother trying to keep the fraying threads of her family woven together are a gut punch. And as the toxic id to Marmee’s earth mother superego, Julia Fertel is haughty fun as snooty Aunt March.
As for the men – Jon-Luke Martin, Michael Cuschieri, Bradley Lieto, and J. Michael Morgan – all have great fun in their dual roles as boyfriends and husbands and neighbors … and the occasional pirate or river troll. (Note: there are a few fantasy sequences where aspiring writer Jo’s inner fantasy life takes center stage.) All of the men seem to be having the time of their lives on stage, Lieto most especially (and what a voice!) as overeager neighbor boy Laurie. It is clear that this is an ensemble that appreciates, respects, and enjoys one another, which translates beautifully onstage.
The musical accompaniment is divine, leaning into chamber music, with just a piano, viola, and cello. What conductor/pianist/music director Rebecca Biber is able to accomplish in the small space with her talented team (Elizabeth Marsh, Robin Bloomberg, Phoebe Gelzer-Govatos, Meghan Rhoades – performing on different nights) is remarkable. It is a lush and orchestral sound, yet simultaneously intimate and haunting
The set design by Wilm Pierson is simple yet sophisticated and quite impressive. Lighting cues differentiate the scenes, all of which take place in the backdrop of the family attic. Items that would normally be found in an attic double as scene props (by Jamie Sonderman, prop master) – a trunk here a toy piano or rag doll there – and the actors make great use of the space overall. It is a testament to the design and the direction as the set seems much more extensive than it really is. Costumes by Emily Betz are period-perfect, and long-time sound designer Kelvin Elvidge makes effective use of mics in the small space. Seasoned theatre vet Rebecca Winder rallies the team as the production’s stage manager.
You may feel like you have seen Little Women far too many times in your life: classic movie, film remakes, television productions, or stage plays. One Off’s production of Little Women is truly special, however, as it is clearly a labor of love for all involved with a clear message of inclusion, compassion, and empowerment. Do not miss it.
Produced nationally and internationally, Little Women has been praised by critics for its ambition in adapting such a well-known story for the stage. This timeless, captivating story is brought to life in this glorious musical filled with personal discovery, heartache, hope and everlasting love.
Based on Louisa May Alcott’s life, Little Women follows the adventures of sisters, Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March. Jo is trying to sell her stories for publication, but the publishers are not interested – her friend, Professor Bhaer, tells her that she has to do better and write more from herself. Begrudgingly taking this advice, Jo weaves the story of herself and her sisters and their experience growing up in Civil War America.
Little Women embodies the complete theatrical experience, guaranteeing a night filled with laughter, tears and a lifting of the spirit. The powerful score soars with the sounds of personal discovery, heartache and hope – the sounds of a young America finding its voice.
8pm Shows July 25th-27th & August 1st-3rd
2pm Shows on July 28th & August 4th
Tickets here: https://www.oneofftheatre.com/
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.