nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 21, 2006
Jo March is billed as a rockabilly musical version of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. The book and lyrics are by Ryan Gilliam (who also directed), and the music is by Michael Hickey (who plays guitar in the show's band, along with Ray Munoz, Jay Simmond, and the remarkable 12-year-old Eli Greenhoe, who also plays drums).
What I love about Jo March is the way it transcends period by more or less ignoring it. Gilliam is quite faithful to her famous source: her show is still about four girls growing up in a poor family while their father is off at war, and how they fend for themselves and mature into young women. But Gilliam doesn't explicitly say which war—we're left to decide for ourselves whether it's the Civil War (as in Alcott's book) or the War in Iraq (as the girls' bluejeans and the funky music seems to suggest). Rather than confusing us, this blend of today with yesterday greatly amps up what's timeless in the story without miring us in historical details. Some things have changed in the 140 years since Little Women was written, but the central issues of family, growing up, and girls and boys discovering that they're interested in each other prove universal. Gilliam's choice also serves to emphasize some of the social themes inherent in the tale: the March family is significantly less well off than most of their relations and neighbors, and how these others react to that fact is telling and valuable.
Mostly, though, Jo March focuses on telling its story. When it begins, the four March sisters—Meg (16), Jo (15), Beth (13), and Amy (12) are putting on home-made shows and wondering about their new neighbors, the formidable (and rich) Mr. Laurence and his shy grandson, Laurie. As the play progresses, Meg falls in love with Laurie's tutor, John Brooke; Beth becomes ill with scarlet fever; and Amy travels to Europe with the girls' fussy old Aunt March, eventually blossoming into a fairly worldly and self-sufficient young woman. As for the title character, well, Jo endures a variety of teenage crises, allowing her pride (and fearfulness) to get in the way of developing a romance with Laurie. Later, she lands a job in New York City, where her chosen career as a writer starts to progress and where she meets Friedrich Bhaer, who will ultimately change her life in several ways.
Gilliam's adaptation is long (about 2-3/4 hours) and most of the book's episodes are recounted here. The structure feels almost cinematic, with lots and lots of short scenes. Transitions aren't always handled as smoothly as they might be, but some of the longer sequences—notably the one where Jo and Professor Bhaer explore the wonders of New York City for the first time (including, in another of the piece's charming anachronisms, a ride on the subway)—are quite lovely. Throughout, Hickey's music is delightful.
Downtown Art is a theatre company whose focus is on working with young people, and almost everyone in the cast nd crew is between the ages of 12 and 18. For them, performance is only part of the valuable experience they have in creating this show with Gilliam. All acquit themselves nicely; some of the standouts in the company include Jeremiah Rivera (age 16) as Laurie, Patrick O'Neill (15) as Mr. Laurence, Lily Sacharow (a high school junior) as Amy, and, doing a fine job of anchoring the play, Dakota Scott (sophomore) as Jo.