Reviewed by Katherine Karlson

For those who think they know the American classic Little Women, it’s time to revise that opinion, thanks to the SRO Production III’s entertaining production that opened Friday (June 3) at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City.

SRO first presented this musical version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel 10 years ago. The book by Allan Knee and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein are true to the original plot but veer sharply away from the saccharine and trite movie versions many people are familiar with. This makes it a refreshing and realistic telling of the four March sisters who come of age during the final years of the American Civil War. The musical emphasizes the strength through unity of the five women in the family and the contributions the girls and their mother make to supporting each other through challenging times.

Director Scott Fisher has a seasoned cast of actors and singers at his disposal, and each performer delivers his or her own talent to produce satisfying ensemble work. Although a lengthy production, nearly 2.5 hours not including intermission, it never dragged.

Sarah Wallikas, previously seen as at as SRO as a charming and lovable Miss Honey in Matilda, is a standout. She has the vocal ability to handles the heavy lifting of some show-stopping songs in Jason Howland’s score, and her interpretation of Jo, not as an awkward tomboy but a fledgling writer trying to break out of the shell of societal constraints, is moving and honest. Wallikas takes Jo on the necessary journey that all adolescents must pursue to realize their potential. Early on she sings “I only know I’m meant for something more. … I’m meant to be astonishing.” But only at the end of the play, after she has experienced tragedy and success, love and loss, does she understand what will truly make her “astonishing.”

Laura Sikes, reprising her role as Marmee from the previous production, supplies the family with compassion, strength and good humor in the face of her own loneliness and fears. Her solo, “Here Alone,” draws back the curtain that she has carefully created to shield her daughters from the real dangers of losing their father to war and financial insecurity.

Each of the remaining sisters has her own personality, and the respective actors bring them to believable life on stage. Kaitlin Pearson takes Amy March from a selfish brat, who burns her sister’s manuscript out of spite, to a mature, if snobbish, bride on her wedding day. One of the more difficult roles is the doomed Beth March, but Hannah Gdovin tones down the diabetic coma-inducing sweetness. Her love of music gives her the ability to overcome the fear of the daunting and wealthy neighbor, Mr. Laurence, portrayed by William Snyder, to bring him joy and laughter in their piano duet, “Off to Massachusetts.” Her final duet again shows her courage — in the face of her own demise — while she offers comfort to Jo. Tess Markham, as eldest sister Meg, rounds out this group of girls. She explores love at first sight in her heartfelt duet with smitten Mr. Brooke (Douglas Harrington) in “Take a Chance on Me.”

The main male characters — Jo’s two suitors — are equally fleshed out. Brendan Gardner plays Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence II with wide-eyed enthusiasm. Josh Smith imbues the restrained Prof. Fritz Bhaer with a nuanced spectrum of feeling that runs from frustration with the strong-willed Miss March to sincere affection and appreciation of who she is.  Lynette Daniels deftly juggles the two distinct roles of domineering Aunt March and nosey body Mrs. Kirk.

The production uses projected quotes from the novel at relevant points to reinforce what a timeless tale this is and make the audience appreciate how well the entire cast and musicians bring those words to life.  With musical direction by Hilary Rozek, it is a surprising little gem of the modern musical theater that all ages will enjoy.

IF YOU GO: SRO’s production of Little Women runs through June 12. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. For tickets, go to Tickets are $25 (less for students and seniors).

COVID Protocols are in place: patrons must wear masks at all times when they are not actively drinking or eating. Masks may be removed only while seated and only when necessary.