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REVIEW: Fun, Different Little Women (Jungle Theater)

The March sisters and their mother in the Jungle Theater’s world premiere of Kate Hamill’s Little Women. L-R: Beth March (Isabella Star LaBlanc), Marmee (Christina Baldwin), Meg March (Christine Weber), Amy March (Megan Burns) and Jo March (C. Michael Menge). Photo by Rich Ryan.

Little Women is a literary gift that keeps on giving. Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters growing up has been turned into movies, TV series, plays, musicals, and an opera. The new stage play adaptation by Kate Hamill, which opened yesterday at the Jungle Theater, puts a new spin or two on the familiar classic.

Much ink has been about what makes Little Women so compelling. Two ingredients are assuredly the four March sisters’ distinctive personalities and the unmistakable (but hard to quantify) sibling vibe woven throughout the work. Hamill’s adaptation preserves these, but there’re a few threads of something different here as well, which Sarah Rasmussen’s direction and casting seem to highlight.

Around the table. L-R: Marmee (Christina Baldwin), Beth March (Isabella Star LaBlanc), Meg March (Christine Weber), Amy March (Megan Burns), and Jo March (C. Michael Menge). Photo by Rich Ryan.

The differences start with the casting, which is unmistakably interracial in a way that seems designed to be conspicuous. One could try to overanalyze this and search for meanings, or simply accept it as a deliberate action and leave it at that. (I recommend the latter.) Before too long, you’ll realize that this is the least of the ways in which this play hits some different notes. Much of the dialogue seems rendered to comment on present-day society, with some real zingers and a few that seem perhaps too overt and distracting from the flow. It makes good conversation fodder during intermission.

The titular “little” women of the title are played by Jo (C. Michael Menge), Christine Weber (Meg), Megan Burns (Amy), and Isabella Star LaBlanc (Beth). It’s a strong quartet, with some particular memorable material given to and performances by Weber and Menge. One of the play’s joys is watching the sisters break out of their normal reserve, especially when they rant. Their family unit is notably rounded out by Christina Baldwin (an onstage joy, as ever) as their mother and Wendy Lehr (one of the funniest parts of the show) as their Aunt March.

The subplots of the novel Little Women are some of my favorite parts. With all the condensing to put this story onstage in just two hours, most of these end up on the cutting room floor. The work rendered on the Jungle’s stage marches to a different drummer than the version of the story that I grew up on, but it’s a powerful and often humorous tale along the way.

Little Women plays through October 21 at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Amy Donahue