Louisa May Alcott wrote her novel Little Women in 1868, and it has been delighting readers for almost a century and a half. There have been countless stage and film adaptations of the story about four sisters growing up in Massachusetts during the Civil War, including the 1994 movie that starred Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, and Kirsten Dunst.
In 1995, the story was turned into a Broadway musical by Allan Knee, Mindi Dickstein, and Jason Howard, and it earned two Tony nominations that year. The national tour of the musical comes to the area Saturday as a presentation of the Valentine Theatre in the Maumee Performing Arts Center.
Jodi Lynn Sylvester, who plays Aunt March in the production, believes the novel's popularity can be linked directly to the sisters.
"Every person can relate to the daughters in some way," she said in a recent telephone interview from Rockford, Md., where the show was preparing to open.
The oldest daughter, Meg, is a compassionate nurturer. Jo is a tomboy who is determined to become a published author. Beth, who loves music, is shy and tries to find the good in everything. Amy, the youngest, is high-spirited, somewhat self-centered, and loves material things.
The sisters are very close, held together by their mother, Marmee, while her husband is serving as a chaplain in the Civil War.
Aunt March, the girls' great-aunt, holds rigid views on the roles of women in society that often are at odds with Jo's longing for a career. She holds out the promise of a tour of Europe to Jo, if only the younger woman can curb her independent ways.
Alcott based Little Women on her own family, transferring her traits into the character of Jo, Sylvester said.
Although the book is a portrait of traditional family life in the mid-1800s, modern readers will also see a strong streak of feminism in it.
Alcott's mother, Abigail, was a suffragist and abolitionist. Her father, Amos, was an experimental educator and social reformer, and his work translates to the book.
"We've done a lot of research and [learned that] Marmee's husband used to take off all the time and travel all over the world trying to set up new schools and he wasn't around the house or the family much at all. They didn't really have, as far as a male was concerned, they didn't have the support coming from him," Sylvester said. Marmee, in effect, became the head of the household, making do with very little income.
Her character, Aunt March, is very much a traditionalist and doesn't approve of this behavior at all. "She thinks that he should be back there taking care of the family."
The musical starts with Jo in New York, reading a play she's just written to Professer Bhaer, another resident of the boarding house where she lives. When the professor suggests that her blood-and-guts saga isn't up to the standards he expects from her, Jo begins recalling other things she wrote while growing up in Concord, Mass.
The play shifts back those years, and the audience gets to watch the girls grow up and begin to find lives of their own, supported by the love of Marmee and the demands of society, embodied by Aunt March.
"The musical score is one of the best that I've ever heard," said Sylvester, who has been performing professionally for about 15 years.
She is equally enthusiastic about her co-workers. "Because of the ages of the girls, we do have a lot of younger people. Their energy is lovely. It's a good mix, because there are some newcomers and there are people like me in the cast who have been doing theater for their entire life, so it's a really well-rounded, nice mixture of people."
Little Women will not be the first time Sylvester has performed in Toledo. She was here several years ago in Titanic: The Musical. She has also appeared in the national tours of Christmas Carol, The Music Man, Kiss Me Kate, and Man of La Mancha. But she feels a particular affinity for Little Women.
"I grew up outside of Concord, Mass., right where Louisa May Alcott lived and right where this story was written, and as a young child I read the book and we took class field trips there to see Orchard House (the Alcott home). I've even attended balls at a church in Concord Center (one of the key scenes of the book takes place at a ball), so that might be part of the reason I hold it so near to my heart and can really relate to these characters."
Sylvester expects fans of the novel to be pleased with the stage adaptation.
"With any kind of a show, they do take some sort of artistic license, but this one is pretty true to the book. And the music only adds to the story. The music is tremendous; the costumes are absolutely stunning and magnificent. It's a lovely evening out with the family."
The Valentine Theatre presents the musical "Little Women" at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday in the Maumee Performing Arts Center, adjacent to Maumee High School, 1147 Saco St. Tickets are $37, $45, and $55. Information: 419-242-2787.
Contact Nanciann Cherry at: firstname.lastname@example.org