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Thursday, December 8, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

Book-It's "Women" will please book's fans

Seattle Times theater critic

Seeing Book-It Repertory Theatre's "Little Women" is no replacement for reading the cherished novel it dramatizes. But rejoice, mothers and daughters (and fathers and sons, too). This lively, affectionate stage treatment makes a charming complement to the Louisa May Alcott book.

To this fond reader, the actors cast as Alcott's fictional March sisters of Concord, Mass., fill the bill. Rhonda J. Soikowski captures the bookish tomboy Jo with an impish grin and ungainly energy. Alexandra Tavares radiates a grave, yearning beauty as the burdened eldest sister, Meg.

As shy Beth, Hana Lass exudes goodness but isn't a goody-goody. And with her blond curls, flippant manner and piping voice, Caitlin Kinnunen is so right as Amy you may want to swat her — especially when she tosses poor Jo's manuscript in the fire.

As it evokes the quaint 19th-century girlhood rituals of ice skating and party-going, homemade theatricals and fireside holiday fetes, Book-It's handsome show is often as bright and cozy as a patchwork comforter.

But Joy Marzec's adaptation of the book also stresses the genteel poverty the Marches (and Alcott's own family) endured in highly class-conscious New England. And the pain the sisters and their mother Marmee (enacted with unfussy fortitude by Lori Larsen) feel, over the wartime separation from their father and husband (Allan Armstrong), is all too relevant today.

Now playing

"Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott. Wednesdays-Sundays through Dec. 23 at Seattle Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$30 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

Also emphasized here are some of Alcott's more enlightened 19th-century views. For instance: being a happy single woman trumps being an unhappily married one.

Of course, most "Little Women" readers know what is in store, matrimonially speaking, for the March girls. And the play gives strong hints (and some hard evidence) that their pal Laurence and his tutor Mr. Brooke (nicely played, respectively, by Colin Byrne and Shawn Law), are destined to be more than objects of puppy love.

But Marzec limits her script to the initial 1868 volume of "Little Women," which chronicles the Marches over a single year, ending with their father's return from Civil War duty. In 1869, Alcott penned a sequel ("Good Wives"), to follows the sisters into adulthood. And both volumes were soon merged in the "Little Women" edition still widely read today.

Yet even if it isn't the entire story, Book-It's "Little Women" squeezes in plenty of incident and emotion. On a rambling, multilevel set by Jennifer Zeyl, which employs every usable inch of space in the Seattle Center Theatre (including the aisles), Allison Narver's staging conjures many short scenes and locales, aided by Jessica Trundy's lighting and Ron Erickson's pretty, hoop-skirted costumes.

There's some rushing about and frenetic pacing here, which a sharpening of the script and shrugging off of some redundancies could remedy. In more obvious need of repair is the musical score by Dan Dennis, which includes sweet choral singing — and some inept piano playing.

Alcott's amply quoted prose is largely spoken with a sense of naturalness, but Soikowski needs to iron some sing-songy stiffness out of her line-readings.

In the main, though, this is a "Little Women" that, at a fraction of the cost and with much more fidelity, is a far superior remake of the Alcott tale than the Broadway musical version that played Seattle recently. And for that, one can be merry and grateful.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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