The four March sisters have taken up brief midweek residence at Candlelight Pavilion as Inland Valley Repertory Theatre presents Little Women The Broadway Musical, a big-stage revival that merits cheers for its terrific young cast, live orchestra, and above all Jaclyn Kelly Shaw’s radiant star turn as Jo.

 Compacting Louisa May Alcott’s 400-plus-word novel into a two-and-three-quarter hour musical would seem a Herculean task, but it is one that book writer Allan Knee achieved quite adeptly indeed, the 2005 Broadway adaptation retaining the book’s most memorable moments (Jo’s stealing a Christmas tree from the neighboring Laurence family’s property, jealous Amy burning Jo’s manuscript, Jo’s shame at finding a scorch mark on her gown the night of the big party, etc.) while adding a batch of tuneful songs (music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein) running the gamut from Jo’s feisty “Better” to the bouncy “I’d Be Delighted,” to the rousing Act One closer “Astonishing.”

An opening sequence introduces us to one of aspiring writer Jo’s romantic flights of fancy, its characters brought to life by March family and friends, a gothic tale that gets quickly poopooed by Jo’s German friend Professor Bhaer, after which we are transported back several years to the Marches’ Concord, Massachusetts home circa 1863.

With the Civil War still raging and the family patriarch serving as a Union Army chaplain, it’s the March sisters’ mother “Marmee” who is left behind to care for the couple’s “Little Women.”

 There’s Meg, the “pretty one,” who falls for the neighbor boy’s tutor John Brooke; dreamer Beth, who wishes nothing more than her sisters’ happiness; Amy, the youngest, perpetually in a pout about being the forgotten one; and above all second sister (and Alcott stand-in) Jo, who eschews dreams of love and marriage (take that, smitten boy-next-door Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence), opting instead for a writer’s life despite those twenty-two rejection letters that have shown up in her mailbox so far.

 Joys, sorrows, disappointments, romances, and at least two weddings, Little Women The Broadway Musical has them all, plus an ending promising much more still in store for the March sisters. (Alcott did, after all, write two sequels to Little Women.)

Equally important, Little Women – The Broadway Musical manages to be family-friendly while maintaining an adult sophistication that makes it a treat for theatergoers of all ages.

Still, like the similarly crowd-pleasing Legally Blonde and Thoroughly Modern Millie, it’s hard to imagine Little Women hitting the mark without just the right leading lady, and in the feisty, feminine, absolutely fabulous Shaw, director Patrick Brien has found a Jo March to win our hearts at first sight with her Vivien Leigh-as-Scarlett O’Hara beauty … and at first listen with a soprano belt to rival Broadway’s best. (Her “Astonishing” is just that.)

 Giving Shaw tiptop sibling support are Anna Daines’ lovely Meg, Katherine Minano’s appropriately bratty Amy, and a gentle Beth-epitomizing Haven Watts, each of whom shows off splendid vocals, Daines opposite Max Herzfeld’s dashing John Brooke in “More Than I Am,” Minano duetting with boy-next-door appealing Andrew Wade’s Laurie, and Watts and Shaw tugging heartstrings in “Some Things Are Meant To Be.” (Give Wade bonus points for hitting every single high note in the gorgeous “Take A Chance On Me.”)

A German-accented Christopher Lindsey manages to be equal parts stuffy and charming as Professor Baer, and Melinda Messenger-Stout gives Marmie’s stirring solos (“Here Alone” and “Days Of Plenty”) ear-pleasing pop vocal shadings.

 Valerie Jasso’s Aunt March, Mel Chadwick’s Mr. Laurence, and Candace Elder’s Mrs. Kirk provide seasoned support, with Mark MacKenzie, Dante Marenco, Rosalia Marenco, and Cindy Smith’s amusing cameos helping to turn “The Weekly Volcano Press” into even more of a show-stopper than in a typically smaller-cast production.

 Though Little Women The Broadway Musical features only a couple of dance sequences, choreographer Kim Eberhardt makes “I’d Be Delighted” a particular delight.

Musical numbers benefit enormously from musical director Ronda Rubio and fellow live musicians David Catalan, Lisa Cherry, Lonn Hayes, Sean Herrick, Felix Nunez, and James Saunders, who give IVRT’s Little Women an orchestral backup lacking in piano-only productions.

Set modifier Mark Mackenzie hides the concurrently running Jesus Christ Superstar’s archeological dig behind black curtains, and though there are appropriate set pieces and props (provided by cast member Smith), the look isn’t quite what the production deserves.

 Costume coordinator/wig designer Ken Martinez’s period wear (courtesy of Theatre Company), Daniel Moorfield’s vivid lighting, and Nick Galvan’s sound mix are all topnotch, however, though not Jo’s Barbra bob-and-tint when our heroine’s formerly raven locks get shorn and highlighted.

Hope Kaufman is assistant director. Bobby Collins is production coordinator. Joe Ketchum is stage manager.

Three of Broadway’s most talented writers have transformed Louisa May Alcott’s timeless tale into a musical as entertaining to grownups as it is to teens and tweens. Jaclyn Kelly Shaw is luminous perfection as Jo. Little Women The Broadway Musical is IVRT at its best.

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Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.

–Steven Stanley
April 19, 2017
Photos: Dawnellen Ferry


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