‘Little Women,’ big voices on Theatre Aspen stage
Alison Luff is shaking off a year in green as a wicked witch with a summer in Aspen playing Jo, the headstrong tomboy in the musical adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” The lead role in Theatre Aspen’s production of the show, based on the timeless novel of four sisters on the homefront during the Civil War in New England, brings Luff back to the roots of her now-blossoming stage career.
Luff moved to New York from her native Houston at age 19 to pursue acting. A year later, in 2009, she scored her first regional gig in Theatre Aspen’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” doing double duty in a role in that season’s kids show, “A Year With Frog and Toad.” Her local turn in “Spelling Bee” won Luff a Denver Post Ovation Award for best supporting actress. The summer productions also earned her an Actor’s Equity Association membership, she proudly recalled, marking her official entrance into the world of professional acting and making her — literally — a card-carrying thespian.
The “Spelling Bee” role marked the beginning of an ascendant career. She went from Aspen to the national tour of “Mamma Mia!” and then to Broadway for the original runs of “Ghost: The Musical” and Kathie Lee Gifford’s “Scandalous.” Over the past year, she played Elphaba in the national tour of “Wicked.”
From the road on that tour, she called Theatre Aspen artistic director Paige Price and expressed interest in returning to the tent in Rio Grand Park, offering herself for the role of Jo in “Little Women.”
“I love Aspen,” Luff said. “It’s my favorite place in the United States. And this was the perfect thing to do after a year with ‘Wicked.’”
She had played Jo as a teenager in a Houston production of the musical and offered to reprise the role for the summer production here.
“I said, ‘Don’t tease me!’” recalled Price, who also directs the local “Little Women” production, which opened July 2 and runs through Aug. 16.
Luff added that spending her first summer in Aspen gave her an appreciation for the diversity of the American stage, ranging from Broadway theaters to 3,000-seat arenas on national tours to a riverside tent in Aspen.
“The caliber of theater they have at Theatre Aspen is so high, and it reminds me that there’s talent everywhere,” Luff said. “The locals in the show are amazing.”
Locals in the “Little Women” cast include Aspen stage veterans David Penhale as Mr. Laurence, the Marches’ crotchety, rich neighbor, and Wendy Perkins as their fussy aunt.
Luff grew up with three brothers, so she said she’s learned the dynamics of sisterly relationships through performing “Little Women.”
“I always loved the story of the family, but I didn’t really know how sisters argue,” she said. “With brothers, you just say what you want to say and move on.”
Luff and her fellow stage sisters — Alie Walsh as Beth, Jessica de Jong as Meg and Sydney Patrick as Amy — have a remarkable chemistry onstage, with nuanced and believable expressions of the love-hate dichotomy of siblinghood.
Their spats over ballgowns and Amy’s petty acts of revenge against Jo ring as true as Jo and Beth’s sentimental duet of sisterly love, “Some Things Are Meant to Be.”
When the cast arrived in Aspen in June, the stage sisters and their stage mom (Joan Hess) spent extra time together off-stage, having March family dinners and bonding around Aspen.
“We spent a lot of time together outside rehearsals, which is important — it’s not important in all shows, but to portray that we’re sisters, we had to get to know each other or it would seem superficial,” Luff said.
An unobtrusive piano and violin score, directed by Crystal Palace veteran David Dyer, fills the tent in a live performance, complementing the cast’s formidable voices.
The show-stopping first-act closer, “Astonishing,” is indeed astonishing. In the song, Luff deftly navigates Jo’s adolescent emotional conflict between fear and brash self-confidence as her voice booms through the theater — no doubt leaving boys and girls (and at least one 30-something journalist) walking out of the tent humming at intermission.
Jo March has been an embodiment of girl power for generations, paving the way in fiction for self-possessed heroines from Nancy Drew to Katniss Everdeen.
“I don’t give two figs about society,” she protests when her prickly Aunt March scorns her unladylike manners and puts down her dreams of becoming a novelist.
Early in the musical, Jo receives a rejection letter from a publisher, urging her to stop writing and instead to make a home and have babies.
“That line always gets a huge groan,” Price said. “But that used to be the way it was. She was a pioneer.”
Yet glass ceilings, sexism and societal pressures on women persist, Price noted, a century and a half since the time of Alcott’s novel.
“My hope is that people can see that still applies to any generation,” she said.
But the Theatre Aspen staging of the show also injects welcome humor into “Little Women” that readers of the book might not expect. Patrick plays Amy with a pleasing touch of physical comedy, for instance. And the romance between Meg and tutor John Brooke (John Caliendo), normally a straightforward if not melodramatic subplot, is played winningly here with a love-drunk silliness.
“They kept making each other giggle, so I said, ‘Let’s go with that,’” Price said. “It makes those people seem like people rather than stock musical characters.”
Sandwiched in the Theatre Aspen summer lineup between the male-stripper musical “The Full Monty” and the sex farce “The Cottage,” this “Little Women” production is likely a refreshingly wholesome offering for families. It’s kid-friendly fare that aims to entertain but doesn’t pander to children and doesn’t ignore their parents and grandparents — aiming for the sweet spot that’s kept girls and their moms reading the book since its 1868-69 publication.
“The story lends itself to young people, but it has a lot for adults,” Luff said. “What everybody does is they try to talk down to kids and get on their level. But kids will be more interested if you don’t do that and you’re saying grown-up things.”
And though the story is set in the 1860s, and the costumes are period-appropriate, the music and performances are prevailingly contemporary.
“I encouraged the cast not to worry about being period,” Price said, “because I thought that would be inaccessible to young people who are used to listening to Miley Cyrus. This way they can see themselves in these actors and characters. Any group of sisters will experience fighting, or the youngest sister will feel like she’s never had anything of her own — the themes are very timeless.”
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