LITTLE WOMEN [a multicultural transposition]

If Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March had come of age in post-WWII L.A. as the Mayeda sisters, offspring of a Japanese-American father and a Chinese-American mother, Louisa Mae Alcott’s classic novel might look and sound just like Little Women [a multicultural transposition], Velina Hasu Houston’s unabashedly G-rated World Premiere rewrite that had me in its spell from ebullient start to heartwarming finish.

The year is 1949 and the Mayedas have returned home from a Colorado internment camp to their native Los Angeles, more specifically to South L.A.’s Leimert Park, only recently integrated thanks to a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended Racially Restrictive Covenants, at least on paper.

Alcott fans will recognize the girls—old-fashioned Meg (Jennifer Chang), painfully shy Beth (Jacqueline Misaye), social-climbing Amy (Rosie Narasaki), and above all tomboy Jo (Nina Harada), whose dreams of becoming a celebrated writer do not include tying the wedding knot—and their mother Marmee (Sharon Omi), who in one of Hasu’s occasional departures from the Alcott original, has welcomed back from the war an alcohol-dependant shadow of a husband (Omi’s real-life spouse and Narasaki’s real-life father Ken Narasaki as Makoto).

Also taking advantage of the neighborhood’s year-old racial diversity is retired African-American hematologist “Mr.” Lawrence (Rif Hutton) and his half-Italian teen grandson Laurie (Ken Ivy), much to the dismay of the Mayedas’ Aunt Ming (Karen Huie), who considers the Lawrence’s “new money” beneath her Canontese “old money” social standing.

Completing the cast of characters is Laurie’s tutor, Calcutta native Mr. Bhat (Jeremiah Caleb) and Mexico City’s Professor Briones (Peter Pasco), who will prove of major importance to aspiring writer Jo in her Act Two journey to New York.

With a cast entirely peopled by actors (and characters specifically written to be) of color, Houston’s Little Women is clearly one we’ve never seen before.

Not only that, but its late-‘40s, early-‘50s time frame is one of particular significance to both the Japanese-American and the African-American communities in addition to offering Angelinos of all ethnicities an eye-opening glimpse into our city’s past.

While preserving the distinctive personality quirks that have kept Alcott’s Little Women in readers’ hearts these past hundred-fifty years, Houston stirs in matters of race that still resonate today. (Though both Mr. Lawrence and Aunt Ming have seen crosses burned in their yards, they are not above their own prejudices.)

Given Houston’s respect and affection for her family-friendly source material, Little Women [a multicultural transposition] may not be for those in search of edgier fare, but I loved its every squeaky-clean moment, old-fashioned dialog and all.

It helps enormously to have director Jon Lawrence Rivera shaping performances on the Chromolume Theatre stage. It helps even more to have a cast who believe in the characters they are playing and take them beyond simple defining adjectives.

Harada anchors and elevates the production of in a performance filled with equal parts radiance and zest, supported by the terrific trio of Chang (deliciously prim and proper), Misaye (goodness personified), and Narasaki (delightfully self-centered), with Omi’s maternal warmth and Narasaki’s heartbreaking “shell shock” completing the immediate family and Huie once again stealing the show as the snooty, starchy Aunt Ming.

Hutton gives Mr. Lawrence both paternal warmth and gravitas, Ivy makes for a pretty darned irresistible boy next door, Caleb is a delightfully droll Mr. Bhat, and Pasco gives Briones equal parts sinceridad and charm.

Scenic designer Irene Choi backs the action with Japanese/Chinese screens quickly repositioned into locales made instantly recognizable by some very effective projections, with additional production design kudos due Derek Jones’s thoroughly professional lighting, Matt Richter’s mood-setting Beth-at-the-piano sound design, and Mylette Nora’s somewhere-in-the-mid-20th-century costumes.

Little Women [a multicultural transposition] is produced by Joan Marie Hurwitt. Adrian Centeno is dramaturg. Flor San Roman is stage manager. Casting is by Raul Clayton Staggs.

No matter how many stage or screen adaptations of Louisa Mae Alcott’s Little Women you may have seen, Little Women [a multicultural transposition] proves as uniquely fresh an interpretation as any fan could hope for. It may now be peopled entirely by characters of color, but its appeal remains universal. I couldn’t be more thankful for having seen this Thanksgiving treat.

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Playwrights’ Arena at Chromolume Theatre, 5429 Washington Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
November 6, 2017
Photos: Kelly Stuart


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