In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, the storytelling and language are already so musical that the decision to adapt the author's tale into a musical seems a little redundant. But as redundancies go, the musical version of Little Women is actually pretty good, and under the direction of Bob Williams, Quad City Music Guild's take on the show is pretty damned good - marvelously designed, staged, sung, and (apart from two glaringly inappropriate performances) acted. Alcott purists may gripe, and not without cause, but it'd be hard to gripe about Music Guild's presentation of the material, and, I think, impossible to gripe about the portrayal of Erin O'Shea, whose stunningly radiant turn as Jo March seems reason enough for the existence of a Little Women musical.
Jo, the fledgling author at the heart of this beloved Civil War-era tale, is such an iconic figure of headstrong, independent-minded young-womanhood that she could easily come off as a cliché. (When the character launches into a Broadway power ballad here, not much separates her from The Little Mermaid's Ariel or Beauty & the Beast's Belle.) Yet there's nothing clichéd about O'Shea, who acts and sings Jo's tomboy exuberance with sensational gusto, but who is also several shades subtler than you'd have any right to expect.
For a performer with such thrilling stage presence, she delivers deadpan comedy like a master; her handling of the tentative advances of Danny White's Laurie, and the unanticipated arrival of J. Adam Lounsberry's Professor Bhaer at her sister's nuptials ("It's just a wedding," says O'Shea with perfectly dry nonchalance), don't suggest an ounce of calculation on the actress' part - this Jo is just naturally, offhandedly hilarious. And in sequences in which O'Shea easily could hog the spotlight, as when Jo discovers the burned remains of her manuscript, the performer's reactions are life-sized and specific, revealing worlds of emotion with poise and economy. There isn't a moment here when you don't fully believe in O'Shea's Jo; Hepburn herself would be proud.
No doubt the actress' challenge was made easier through the rather extraordinary collection of talents she's surrounded by, and I could hardly imagine a more winning trio in the roles of the March sisters. Laurel Williams is lovely and understated as Meg, bringing an apologetic grace to her character's undemanding desires, while Abbey Donohoe is a spectacularly vibrant and frequently riotous Amy, exuding the ingratiating pluck of a young Kristen Chenoweth.
And Sarah Walker, as Beth, gives the absolute finest of the many excellent Music Guild portrayals I've yet seen from her. She's both effortlessly touching and unexpectedly funny - at Thursday's preview, Beth's explosive delight upon being asked to play the piano felt completely spontaneous, and yielded an enormous laugh - and the scene in which Beth and Jo (in an unbelievably clever effect) fly a kite on Cape Cod is a truly magical piece of theatre; with their voices blending in gorgeous harmony, the sisters' bond is palpable, and Walker's acceptance of Beth's mortality is devastatingly sincere and moving.
With Dolores Sierra's Marmee providing tenderness and rich, warm vocals - despite being stuck with most of the show's clunkiest exposition - and with White, Lounsberry, and Joel Kolander (as John Brooke) providing stellar romantic and comedic support, this Little Women ensemble is an inspiring one, and would be even more inspiring if John Donald O'Shea (as Mr. Lawrence) and Pami Triebel (as Aunt March) didn't unwittingly insist on trashing the show's rhythm. That probably sounds harsh, but the distractingly presentational play-acting of Triebel and the O'Shea père bears so little resemblance to the grounded portrayals of Little Women's other performers that these two seem entire universes removed from their castmates. Both are repeating broad shtick that's worked for them in the past, not seeming to realize that Little Women requires a far lighter, more realistic touch; every so often, for a few minutes, the actors' happy mugging causes the production to stop dead in its tracks.
There are a few other, less grating irritants. Jo's fondness for the exclamation "Christopher Columbus!" gets such a thorough workout you begin wishing it'd be replaced with "Gloryosky!" or "Leapin' lizards!", and if you're familiar with Alcott's story, some of the show's necessary shortcuts might raise an eyebrow or two; it winds up being a platonic love song, but Laurie's ecstatic "Take a Chance on Me" (no relation to the ABBA tune) is sung to Jo awfully soon after their first meeting.
Yet the show's downers are handily outweighed by the moments that make you want to cheer, not least of which is Williams' supremely clever staging of Jo's "blood and guts" stories, featuring a team of first-rate clowns portraying knights and trolls and damsels in distress. (Jo, narrating the tale from the sidelines, mimics their gestures and mouths their dialogue.) The Act II delivery of this sublimely goofy tale was so enjoyable that I almost didn't want to return from it, but thankfully, Music Guild's Little Women provides more than enough reason to.
For tickets, call (309) 762-6610.