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On the book-to-musical front, Little Women (book, Allan Knee; lyrics, Mindi Dickstein; music, Jason Howland) is an excellent candidate. With its epic scope, archetypal characters with heart, and place of honor in the children's literature canon, the Louisa May Alcott novel lends itself well to the conventions of musical theater. Now at the Encore Musical Theatre, as directed by Steve DeBruyne, is a production every bit as fulfilling and heartrending as its source.

The play is relatively faithful to the book, preserving cherished moments but taking some liberties with how and where they occur in order to streamline the plot. (Condensing a book of hundreds of pages into a two-and-three-quarter-hour production requires some sacrifices, and most of the adapters' choices are justifiable rather than frustrating.) Here is the ordinary yet magical Massachusetts upbringing of the four March girls: proper Meg (Thalia Schramm), tomboy Jo (Katie Hardy), saintly Beth (Cara AnnMarie), and petulant Amy (Madison Deadman). With their father away serving in the Civil War, the teenage girls are watched over by mother Marmee (Sonia Marquis), a morally steadfast woman who seems incapable of making a parenting mistake. These five performers have cultivated such a fond family dynamic, it's a pleasure to watch Deadman resent being put in her place, Schramm fall hard and fast in love, AnnMarie demurely resisting expectations of her life, and Marquis privately admitting to feelings of self-doubt. But the play's center ultimately lies where it should, with Jo, and Hardy's exuberant take on the ambitious, unconventional young writer with sky-high aspirations makes the story soar. This Jo is relatable and engaging even when she's being bull-headed or obtuse, and her songs reflect the conviction and energy that propels the character.

On the outskirts of the family are a handful of supporting characters. As Aunt March, the prickly dowager who tempts Jo with a strings-attached promise of travel abroad, Anne Bauman works the character's arc to reflect how the girls' perspective of her changes as they age. Ludicrously wealthy, cantankerous neighbor Mr. Lawrence (J. Michael Morgan) and his grandson, Laurie (Sean Widener), become increasingly intertwined with the Marches; as an honorary family member and even love interest, Widener's unharnessed energy fires in all directions. DeBruyne also makes an appearance as unassuming tutor John Brooke, a humble intellectual with adorable timidity. In less-friendly New York City, where Jo gravitates to begin her career in earnest, she finds set-in-his-ways Professor Bhaer; in his take on the unsmiling character, Rusty Mewha successfully bridges the divide between their fundamental disagreements and their closeness and trust. Beyond the confinements of real life, nearly all the characters double as players in fantasy sequences from the turbulent short stories Jo endeavors to sell. These few exploits show off the best of Cara Manor's subtle choreography linking storyteller to tale; however, just as Jo discovers her true-life writing is deeper and more sought after than her fiction, here, too, the brief pot-boilers pale in comparison to the simple pleasures of the Marches' reality.

DeBruyne's direction makes for a well-acted two acts that rise and fall with due deliberation; the songs are not memorable but are solidly performed, thanks to musical director Jill Quagliata (who also leads the four-member orchestra). Designer Leo Babcock has pushed much of the set to a small strip of downstage in order to better feature the attic that was a fixture of the girls' childhood, but the space constraints are rarely problematic, and the attic proves worthy of the attention in some of the show's best scenes. Lighting by Daniel Fowler has the most fun reenacting Jo's fiction, but also helps to highlight the individual playing areas and make the viewer oblivious to the spaces not in use. Colleen E. Meyer and Schramm pull out the stops in designing costumes and hair, respectively, for all ages and occasions; the many ensembles feel largely authentic, but also have a playful bent.

Readers of Little Women can attest that even in the idyllic March family, growing up is neither easy nor unceasingly happy; the devastation of their losses are well represented in this appealing, honest, loving production, and tears are handily and repeatedly earned. This show benefits from a strong ensemble, but above all by the celebratory performance of its protagonist — this is the best work of Hardy's I've seen to date, equal parts bold and flawless. Fans of the book need not fear the adaptation, and this production's sensational attention to the trials and rewards of family and maturation make it something of a treasure in itself.


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