In between upbeat dance routines and dramatic heart-wrenching ballads, the timeless tale of four little women’s journeys into womanhood receives a musical makeover that amplifies their struggles along the way.
Melodramatics Theatre Company Inc.’s “Little Women: The Musical” by Allan Knee is based on Louisa May Alcott’s novel about her personal journey to become a writer. It follows Jo and the rest of the March sisters — Meg, Beth and Amy — as they grow up in Massachusetts during the Civil War. The story illuminates Jo’s conflict between her push for independence and her loyalty to the sisterhood.
Most of the design team consists of Cornell University students, while the cast is primarily from Ithaca College.
The maturing Jo, who is played by freshman Megan Beard, experiences internal conflict in her journey to womanhood. The musical depicts her struggle of whether to settle down and become a wife or standout as a great writer and conquer the world.
Junior Eric Hagreen, director of the entirely student-run production, said the greatest challenge of directing the show was telling the story from a classic novel and bringing it to life as a musical.
“It was a little difficult interpreting this classic American story into a full-fledged musical,” he said. “But creating these literary characters on stage was exciting for people like me who read the book in school and seeing these brilliant portrayals on stage.”
All musical components aside, Hagreen said it’s always a challenge to make a period piece convincing — especially the language.
“To make the speech of the time seem accessible and real to a modern audience is difficult,” he said. “It’s making what might seem like corny phrases to us sincere and believable.”
Beard said memorizing her lines was a challenge. She said because the show is her first musical performance in Ithaca, the music was demanding.
“The first two months were strictly music rehearsal because it’s pretty complex and demanding vocally for the actors,” she said.
Beard said the music is the show’s greatest asset. The classical composition and full pit orchestra, she said, intensifies the four sisters’ journey from youth to womanhood.
“The music is so beautiful and has a really good way of telling the sadness they go through,” she said. “It’s such a well-known story, but the music really adds to that because it emotes everything.”
Hagreen said the music gives depth to the characters without detracting from the story they’re trying to tell.
“It’s challenging to make characters believable as they burst into song,” he said. “But really, we’re just peaking into souls as they’re singing their hearts out.”
Cornell senior Rachel Mayer, general manager and president of the company, said the instrumentation combined with the show’s fiery theme gives the audience a deeper look into Jo’s internal struggle.
“It represents the fire within Jo and the conflict between her literary passion and her family connection,” she said.
The musical is set in a black box theater, which Mayer said uses the abstract locations to blend the audience into the action.
“Everything is moving toward the audience, and it’s closer and more intimate than shows we’ve done in the past,” Mayer said. “It connects physically, emotionally and mentally with the audience.”
With the set’s wallpaper fading into the black walls surrounding the audience, Mayer said every scenic element is meant to connect the audience to the story. She said the costumes, which include big hoop skirts, remain true to the musical’s era, except for Jo’s, which reflects her character’s unconventionality.
“Jo wears pants, which is her push to be more progressive and independent,” she said. “It’s to illustrate that she’s cut from a different cloth.”
Hagreen said it was nice to blend students from both colleges to make the production more cohesive.
“Everyone brings something to the table, so we’re able to create this unified product in every aspect,” he said.
If you go: “Little Women: The Musical”
When: 8 p.m. April 21-23, and April 28-30
Where: Risley Theatre
How much: $10