A musical version of “Little Women” kicks off the 70th anniversary season of Westchester’s celebrated Kentwood Players
By Christina Campodonico
Are you a Meg, a Jo, a Beth or an Amy?
For fans of the “Little Women” universe of books, films and TV series — all based on the original Louisa May Alcott novel about four sisters growing up in the shadow of the Civil War — it is an essential question.
Countless internet quizzes are devoted to whether the test-taker is like the fiercely free-spirited and tomboyish Jo March (the protagonist of the novel, who dreams of writing her own novel one day and staying single forever); the traditionally-minded Meg, who desires marriage and motherhood; the sweet and shy wallflower Beth, who catches Scarlet fever; or the flamboyant, artsy Amy, who’s also known as the bratty one of the March sister brood (but eventually grows out of it).
Filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s new star-studded take on the coming-of-age classic (out Christmas Day) is already generating enough buzz to get “Little Women” devotees and a new generation of fans excited about this very question. Until then, it is an utter delight to watch the Kentwood Players bring the lives of the four March sisters to life with the musical “Little Women,” which originally debuted on Broadway in 2005 and starred Tony winner Sutton Foster as Jo.
The Kentwood Players’ production kicks off the all-volunteer theater troupe’s 70th anniversary season, which commemorates the not-for-profit group’s storied legacy of producing community-driven theater in Westchester — from its origins as part of PTA-supported play to its stints in a barn, a pump house and a restaurant. In the early ’60s, the group transformed a warehouse on Hindry Avenue into the Westchester Playhouse, a fully outfitted theater that remains their permanent home, and has earned a citywide reputation for highly professional productions through the years.
For real estate agent Jackie Fiske, performing the role of Jo with Kentwood Players is the culmination of a lifelong dream.
“I was such a tomboy. I hated wearing dresses. I hated wearing makeup. I was always into sports. I always loved writing,” says Fiske, who studied screenwriting at USC. “I just knew I always wanted to play Jo. This is my dream, dream, dream … I-can-die-happy role.”
Nineteen-year-old Francesca Farina, a student at Santa Monica City College, was similarly drawn to the role of Beth.
“I always really liked Beth, weirdly enough,” says Farina. “Most people want to play the lead, but I was like, ‘Oh, but I kind of feel like her.’”
Lyndsay Palmer, a teacher’s assistant who also works with special needs children on American Sign Language, identifies more with the youngest March sister’s affinity for visual art.
“My sister would probably say, ‘You’re such a spoiled brat, so yes, Amy fits you perfectly.’ I see myself as more reserved, but when you get to know me, I do have that bubbly, kind of fun personality that Amy possesses,” says Palmer. “I do love art. I create as much as I can. So I think that is probably my biggest relation with Amy is just her love of art and culture.”
For the role, Palmer intently studied the artwork of Louisa May Alcott’s real-life artist sister Abigail May Alcott Nieriker (the inspiration for Amy) and also contributed her own artistic talents to the show, including a hand-drawn picture of the March sisters’ mother Marmee, and gave water-colored cards to her castmates.
Recent Pepperdine University graduate Lauren Jennerjohn initially felt less affinity for her character, the domestically-inclined eldest sister Meg, but warmed up to her after diving into more research about her intellectual pursuits.
“It’s so strange, because I’m quite different from her,” says Jennerjohn. “But playing Meg also feels so comfortable. I don’t really know why, but I have fallen in love with her and continue to fall in love with her.… I love her almost like divineness and her romantic side. … The writers that the book says that she likes to read and that the script says that she likes to read … they’re all romanticist.”
While each actress feels very suited to her role now, they were all called back for very different parts.
Instead of soft-spoken Beth, Farina was initially called back for the role of loud and brash Amy. Instead of homemaking Meg, Jennerjohn was called back for homebody Beth. Palmer was called back for every role except Jo, her character Amy’s “polar opposite” and sisterly rival. And Fiske was called back not only for Jo, but also Meg, the eldest March sister whose domestic demeanor is the antithesis of Jo’s ambition to become an independent woman and author (although Jo does eventually marry the intellectual Professor Bhaer).
“I literally came in dressed in my combat boots and pants and a vest, and then I brought a wrap skirt so that I could transition to Meg,” Fiske recalls. “So I totally wanted Jo, and I think it was pretty obvious.
“I almost talked myself out of coming to the audition because I just wanted it so badly. The thought of trying for it and not getting it [was] heartbreaking,” she continues, remembering how belting Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” in the car with her boyfriend finally convinced her to audition. “I literally came in 10 minutes before they stopped.”
As the show has progressed, Farina, Fiske, Jennerjohn and Palmer say a “sisterhood” of their own has formed as they’ve gotten to know each other and made their own discoveries about the world of “Little Women,” from the intricacies of its musical version’s score to how the material speaks to contemporary feminism and endures as a source of inspiration for numerous adaptations.
“It’s women power. It’s feminism. It’s strength,” says Palmer, observing how the March sisters’ father is notably absent from the musical and Marmee is essentially a single mom. “It is all about the women, and the power that Marmee has and how she really is the rock and the foundation of the family.”
“That concept of sisterhood, whether it’s literal or not, just in this day and age, I think that’s applicable,” adds Fiske. “Obviously with the #MeToo movement and everything, female empowerment is big and women not turning on one another and not competing with one another. … I think that’s the arc that Amy and [Jo] have. It’s like we learn not only to live with each other but respect each other and support each other. And I think if women can do that from here on out that will be a really positive thing for the world.”
Jo’s controversial choice to marry Professor Bhaer, after rejecting her childhood bestie’s proposal and marriage in general, could also be seen as Jo’s way of opening herself to the idea of “having it all”— love and a career.
“It’s like she’s a filly, like a young horse that’s been bucking and rearing, and she’s finally so exhausted when she sees [Bhaer] … she could practically just fall into his arms,” says Fiske. “You see this side of her that’s soft and open to love.”
“I also think everyone can see themselves in one of us, or Marmee, or one of the characters in this show,” adds Jennerjohn. “It’s truly timeless because no matter what age you are … from Amy to Aunt March, you can find yourself in this story.”
“Little Women” plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 21 at the Westchester Playhouse, 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. Tickets are $27 at kentwoodplayers.org, or call (310) 645-5156.