'Little women,' big impact: Brown Paper Box Co.'s revival resonates with suburban actresses
"Little Women" was published more than 150 years ago, but the message that underscores Louisa May Alcott's seminal coming-of-age tale has a special resonance this year, according to suburban actresses staring in a Chicago stage version.
For West Dundee native Tessa Dettman, who co-stars in Brown Paper Box Co.'s revival of the musical adaptation of "Little Women," that message is as clear as it is timely.
"There isn't a wrong way to be a woman and do what makes you happy," said Dettman, who plays Josephine March in the chamber-style production, which began previews days after a record number of women were sworn in as members of the 116th Congress.
Set in Concord, Massachusetts, near the end of the Civil War, Alcott's novel centers on sisters from a genteelly impoverished but devoted family who attempt to fulfill themselves while honoring their family obligations. The novel also addresses gender stereotypes and authenticity, mostly through the character of Jo, the assertive aspiring writer determined "to astonish you all ... write books and get rich and famous," goals most 19th-century women would not have conceived of much less achieved.
Jo's "a young girl during a time when women were supposed to be seen and not heard. She wants to be heard in a major way," said Dettman, 23.
The show's insistence that "there are all different types of women and none of them are wrong" makes it relevant to contemporary audiences, especially young women, said Dettman, a 2017 Northwestern University graduate.
Having never read the novel before she was cast as the imperious Aunt March, Jenny Rudnick listened to the book on tape over a 20-hour drive to and from Arkansas last month.
"I was struck by how modern much of it was," said the Vernon Hills resident. "I was surprised to hear those lines about Jo wearing pants and saying she wants to do the things boys do."
Women remain central throughout, Rudnick said. And like the novel, the musical includes more traditional female characters who she says reflect "all phases of womanhood."
"The show itself is so feminist," said Cary native Kim Green, who plays youngest sister Amy March, a budding artist. Referring to Jo's statements that she won't be a typical wife to Professor Bhaer, Green points out that Jo emphasizes she won't be a sweet, demure partner.
"She says, 'This is me. This is what you're going to have to take,'" said Green, who hopes the show gives young women in the audience a sense of empowerment.
Written by Allan Knee, with music and lyrics by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein, "Little Women" ran for 137 performances on Broadway and earned Sutton Foster a Tony Award nomination for her performance as Jo, whose crowd-pleasing "Astonishing" closes the first act.
But reviews were mixed. The show, which Lincolnshire's Marriott Theatre revived in 2007, never became a staple.
Co-directors Stephanie Rohr and M. William Panek have scaled back the production, which will feature solo piano accompaniment and staging that is up close and personal.
"We're doing it in an alley configuration with people on both sides," Dettman said. "It feels like you're in the March family home watching these events unfold."
"Everyone is going to be able to see every expression on our faces at all times," she said.
Rudnick finds the experience both exciting and frightening.
"It actually frees you up," she said. "You can act more naturally."
"I can't wait to do it in front of an audience," she said.
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"Little Women the Musical"
Where: Brown Paper Box Co. at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave., Chicago, brownpaperbox.org
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday; from Friday, Jan. 11, to Feb. 9
Tickets: $12 previews, $25 regular run