'Little Women' is always in season<BR><BR>Book-It does the Alcott classic proud

OK, in an effort to provide full disclosure, I'll tell you that my favorite childhood book was Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women." I loved the whole family, the all-knowing mother and her band of diverse but delightful daughters, but most of all I loved Jo. She was the tomboy sister, the writer, the girl who fought against a life restricted by gender.

I wasn't alone in my affection for the book. Almost every woman I know found magic in this tale of innocence, familial love and fortitude.

Written in 1868, the novel has been a favorite ever since. It was adapted to film six times, made into a TV series and an opera, and just this year a musical version played in Seattle. The latest production is a Book-It adaptation which lights up the stage at the Center House. Beautifully realized and marked by an ingenious set and good acting, it's a holiday treat for the whole family. Yes, even the male members will enjoy it - if my husband's response is any indication. He entered the theater with a bad attitude, wasn't happy about having to sit through chick-lit on stage. Within moments of the play's start he was captivated, and came out of the theater liking it even more than I did. But that's because he didn't come in with preconceived notions about the characters.

For the benefit of anyone out there who may not know the story of the March family, it's about their experience during the Civil War. Poppa has gone off to serve the Northern cause, and the four sisters and their mother are left to mind the homefront. They do a fine job with a little help from their daunting neighbor Mr. Lawrence and his grandson Laurie.

The story is mostly autobiographical. Alcott was the second oldest in a family of four girls, and clearly Jo was modeled after her own life. Her father was a member of the transcendentalist movement which included their neighbors Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. Louisa was taught philosophy by Emerson and biology by Thoreau. James Russell Lowell, Margaret Fuller and Julia Ward lived close by. Although her family was poor financially, it was rich intellectually, as is the March family in "Little Women."

Joy Marzec, who has adapted the story for the stage, is particularly successful in tying together the most cherished episodes of the book. Jennifer Zeyl's set ingeniously incorporates rooms in three separate houses as well as outdoor spaces and roadways. Jessica Trundy's lighting heightens the mood, moves characters from one venue to another and is particularly effective in its silhouette effects.

The director, Allison Narver, takes this material and runs with it. Throughout the production there are tableaux that flow with the story yet stand on their own as Christmas-card images from the 19th century. This is a pretty production with lovely costumes, Pre-Raphaelite beauties and haunting scenes that look like 3-D paintings.

Narver's cast is excellent. Lori Larsen as Marmee, the girls' mother, is propriety personified. She's a font of wisdom and a source of affection. Her counterpoint, Aunt March, is played with verve by Jody McCoy. In contrast to Marmee's gentility stands Aunt Marsh's loud and large presence. She's like a tornado on stage, overwhelming all with her uncontrollable fury.

Eddie Levi Lee as Mr. Lawrence and Colin Byrne as young Laurie aptly portray another pair of seeming opposites. Mr. Lawrence's harshness is in sharp contrast with Laurie's sweet kindness - although, as we find out, a gruff exterior is often a protective shell beneath which lies a tender and generous soul.

Narver and her actors also make sure that the distinct personalities of each of the sisters are fully realized. Beautiful Meg is played with sensitivity by Alexandra Tavares. Frail, shy Beth, played by Hana Lass, is musically gifted but insecure. The youngest sister, Amy, as played by Caitlin Kinnunen has a childlike innocence combined with recognition of her own selfishness.

Jo is well portrayed by Rhonda J. Soikowski, but here's where I had some problems. Soikowski portrays a rebellious, talented, self-determined but truly admirable Jo - but she's not my Jo. When one has a favorite character from literature, one has a powerful mental image of that person. How could anyone else replicate it? And this may be a problem for other great fans of the book if they come to the theater with preconceived notions of what the characters should be.

And if the romanticism of the 19th century seems a bit too much treacle for you, you might find this production overly sweet, a little too naïve. But it's the holiday season at the end of a year that has brought overwhelming natural disasters and political debacles. Maybe we all need a peek back at a world where goodness prevails even in a time of war.[[In-content Ad]]