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Randall's 'Little Women' offers depth and satisfaction

“Little Women, the Musical” opened Dec. 8 on the Jacksonville stage of the Randall Theatre Company. It’s a beloved children’s story but much more.

Louisa May Alcott wrote “Little Women” in 1868, three years after the Civil War ended. It is a loosely autobiographical account of her life of genteel poverty with her mother and three sisters in Concord, Massachusetts. They argue and love and fight and reconcile, making do with what they have at hand. The young sisters pledge to remain together, but each finds her own path to womanhood.

“Little Women” is a sweet story and wonderfully performed on Randall’s Jacksonville stage. If you’re 7 years old as I was when I first read Alcott’s novel, you’ll be enchanted by the play, with the small rivalries and contrariness that is the stuff of family life. At 7, one is thrilled at Jo’s rebellious, swashbuckling dramatics and hopeful for a future of romance and matchmaking.

For the adult audience, “Little Women” reveals more substantial themes of class consciousness, feminism and intellectualism. Alcott was raised by transcendentalist parents and educated by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. While Alcott may be best known for her March sister novels, modern scholarship reveals that Alcott published dozens of “blood and guts” potboiler stories under a pseudonym, A.M. Barnard, some of which remain to be discovered. Motivated in part by financial need but also by that defiant spirit of unconventionality, Alcott explored typically masculine themes of violence and desire.

As red-headed Jo, Courtney Crawford’s expressive countenance and extravagant gestures bring to mind Lucille Ball at her best. Like Lucille Ball, Crawford as Jo is always passionate in her actions and intentions, determined to make good though constrained by society and tradition. Jo refuses to conform to expectations and is determined to succeed in a man’s world — Crawford clearly portrays the frustration, despair and exhilaration of that journey.

Jo’s sisters, Meg, Beth and Amy, are played by Wyn Reed, Aubrey Campbell and Lauren Panter, respectively. Their characters are determined early on as children, and these fine performers are consistent in delivering a mature, womanly perspective as the arc of the narrative progresses.

The costumes of “Little Women” are beautiful. Flounces, tassels and sashes detail the garments, and the chiffons, satins and cotton dresses have crinoline petticoats and later the appropriate pannier and bustle. Corsets were not in evidence, though Rebecca Campbell’s measured and stately movements in the role of Marmee suggested she could be wearing the garment under her exquisitely tailored fashions.

Rebecca Campbell and Alex Boyles co-direct “Little Women,” crafting a production that feels right from both the male and female points of view that is consistent with what we know of Alcott’s life and her novel. Campbell and Boyles are gender prototypes for the play’s characters: The women are decidedly strong, and not at all subordinate in life or love, and the men are loyal, loving and responsive to women of virtue and intelligence. The men of Jo’s world, Zaq Wentworth as Laurie, Nicolas Hewitt as John Brooke, Buzz London as Mr. Laurence and Alex Boyles as Professor Fritz Bhaer, provide levity, humanity, encouragement and love.

At the end of a Randall Theatre performance, after they take a bow, the performers leave the stage right down the center aisle to form a receiving line toward the exit. It’s a pleasure to watch the actors’ flushed and excited countenances as they stride through the audience and to congratulate them for a satisfying production at the end of the evening.

If you are looking for a warm, family-friendly show this holiday season with enough depth and complexity to intrigue the adult audience, you can’t go wrong with Randall Theatre’s “Little Women.”

“Little Women” runs about two hours with a 15-minute intermission and is suitable for all ages. Performances continue at 7 p.m. Dec. 21, 22, 23, 28, 29 and 30, and at 2 p.m. Dec. 23 and 31. Reserved seating is $20-$22, and $15 Thursdays. The Randall’s Jacksonville stage is at 520 N. Fifth St., in the Calvary Church of God. For tickets and information, see www.randalltheatre.com or call 541-632-3258.

— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer who lives in Ashland, Oregon. You can contact her at mbattistellaor@gmail.com

Courtney Crawford, left, Wyn Reed, Aubrey Campbell and Lauren Green play Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy in Randall Theatre's Jacksonville production of 'Little Women, the Musical.' [Photo courtesy of Melissa Ghiglieri]