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“Little Women” (first on Broadway in 2005) is a big musical on a small stage at ArtsWest, and director Mathew Wright makes it mostly work. The ambitious production presented under ArtsWest’s new management is a propitious new beginning for the theater.

This sweet show, a Cliff Notes version of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, manages to tug your heartstrings despite eliminating the subtleties of the book in which four sisters and their dearest Marmee make do while Papa’s with the Northern troops during the Civil War.

An excellent string orchestra directed by Joshua Zimmerman makes fine music. But because of space limitations, it is located on stage behind the actors, and that’s the downside. The sound is sometimes so big that it overwhelms the voices. An effort to set the orchestra apart with hanging panels doesn’t work. Altered configurations reflecting scene changes are more disruptive than effective.

Yet Alcott’s story of sisterhood, empowerment, thwarted dreams and plucky resolve is captivating. It’s a tale of familial love despite setbacks and personality differences.

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Jo, the ambitious sister with the most daring personality, is central. EmilyRose Frasca plays the hoydenish and headstrong Jo with deep emotion and a commanding singing voice.

Generous Meg (Marissa Ryder) seeks marriage and gets it. The doomed Beth (Amanda Louise Carpp) is by far the sweetest and kindest of them all. Amy, as played by Maddy Kennard, is almost too beautiful, too exquisite to be the mean girl, the pretentious character that she is in the book.

The rock of the March family is Marmee, played with quiet authority by Cindy Bradder. She seems to float through the scenes, trailing calm and wisdom in her wake. What a contrast to Aunt March, the domineering, authority-on-everything woman who accepts no contradiction. In Patricia Haines-Ainsworth’s hands, she’s an imperious force to be reckoned with.

There are men, of course, and their roles are well-played, but this is a story about women. For a change, the male roles are little more than foils for the females.

Nancy Worssam:

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