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From left: Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Verónica Hortigüela, Lindsday Wu, Brefny Caribou, Richard Lam and Allison Edwards-Crewe in Little Women at the Stratford Festival.David Hou

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  • Title: Little Women
  • Written by: Jordi Mand
  • Director: Esther Jun
  • Actors: Allison Edwards-Crewe, Veronica Hortiguela, Lindsay Wu, Brefny Caribou
  • Company: The Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Avon Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to October 29, 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: Reduced capacity performances available.
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From left: Lindsay Wu as Amy March, Brefny Caribou as Beth March, Allison Edwards-Crewe as Jo March and Verónica Hortigüela as Meg March.David Hou

Are you a Jo, a Meg, an Amy or a Beth?

Little Women, in a new stage version now on at the Stratford Festival, offers another opportunity to consider that eternal question, hot on the heels of a couple of prominent film and television adaptations.

This theatre production’s unique selling point over recent screen-based takes, however, is its inclusive casting of the March sisters living in genteel poverty in Massachusetts – which may help all sorts of little people to see themselves in Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century tale set during and in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

Would-be writer Jo (a compelling Allison Edward-Crewe) is the central figure, of course, and, in playwright Jordi Mand’s adaptation, the tomboy (to use the language of the time) is also our narrator for the evening.

Indeed, Jo literally pulls her story out of a small travelling trunk in director Esther Jun’s visually puckish production: Her sisters march out of one placed at centre stage, one at a time, bringing various props and pieces of scenery with them in a clever coup de theatre that kicks the show off.

Jo’s sisters are all well cast: Veronica Hortiguela nails the right balance of priggishness and warmth as homemaker-to-be Meg; Lindsay Wu is the comic scene-stealer as the attention-loving artist Amy; and Brefny Caribou is fittingly sweet as the piano-playing Beth.

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Brefny Caribou, centre, as Beth March is comforted by Poole, Hortigüela and Edwards-Crewe in a scene from Little Women.Jordy Clarke

Rich boy next door Laurie, known to Jo as Teddy, is given his own shy spin by Richard Lam. Among the older ensemble members, Irene Poole gets to be noble and inspiring as matriarch Marmee, while Marion Adler gets to have all the fun playing the cranky Aunt March.

Stratford first produced Little Women back in 1997, in an adaptation by the American playwright Marisha Chamberlain that only covered the action of the first of the initial two volumes of the novel, which were published in quick succession in 1868 and 1869 but later combined.

This freshly commissioned adaptation by Mand covers both parts of the story, moving through their incidents in a straightforward chronology, an intermission placed very neatly in the middle. This almost feels like a play followed by its sequel rather than a two-act play.

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Irene Poole, centre, as Marmee surrounded by Wu, Caribou, Hortigüela and Allison Edwards-Crewe in Little Women.David Hou

Mand has incorporated the most beloved moments from Alcott (the curling-iron catastrophe, the book burning) while inserting references to slavery and women’s suffrage to give young audiences a little historical context for the action. Pacing wise, however, her version can feel like a staged abridgement of the novel, rather than a zesty dramatization.

Despite a three-hour running time (for a show in the Schulich Children’s Plays series? In a pandemic?), there’s not much time for depth of character or much else in the short scenes – and Jo’s rushed romantic ending, in particular, feels as much of a compromise to an earlier era’s expectations as ever.

Jun’s family-aimed production has a 1990s vibe at times – the characters emerging in fashions of that era, before switching to period petticoats, and alternative music of that decade often in the background.

I’m not sure I really buy that Jo has a stronger connection to the riot grrls over women from any other era of female rebellion and resistance, but these elements do add an extra layer of enjoyment for parents of that era.

Jo and Laurie’s first dance is to Bjork’s It’s Oh So Quiet; Beth plays an acoustic version of Radiohead’s No Surprises on the piano; and the curtain call is to Elastica’s Connection. (Alyssa Martin’s movement direction for a handful of dance numbers is amusingly anarchic.)

I did wish for a better integration of these visually appealing and period-smashing elements with the meat of the show; instead, this was one of those productions where most of the fun stagecraft is stuffed into silences and scene changes.

Still, with the United States of America currently feeling as divided as it has at any time since the American Civil War, Alcott’s depiction of a family clinging on to normalcy in the North as carnage takes place a train ride away feels very close to our current moment. So too, the fear that strikes the March household when the young Beth is first stricken with scarlet fever.

Marmee’s line about being angry every day of her life, likewise, lands as powerfully as ever as the original, even if her attempts to keep from passing on that fury to her little women, and the little women after them, are futile.

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