The emotional warmth was palpable Saturday night as Mount Airy’s Quintessence Theatre Group opened its first in-person show since the pandemic’s start. And some of it even emanated from Little Women: The Broadway Musical, adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century novel.
The evening’s most powerful moment may have been artistic director Alexander Burns’ heartfelt welcome, met by applause, stamping feet, and cries of, “We’re back!” But the lovingly rendered production, directed by Hassan Al Rawas and anchored by Marielle Issa as Jo March, added to the bonhomie.
With a book by Allan Knee, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and music by Jason Howland, Little Women is competently enough crafted to have reached Broadway. But even with Tony Award winner Sutton Foster in the lead role, it earned lukewarm reviews, lasted only four months after its January 2005 opening, and failed to produce any breakout songs.
The Quintessence staging, at about two hours and 40 minutes, will seem overlong to non-acolytes of the source material. Like the semi-autobiographical classic by the Germantown-born Alcott, this Civil War-era musical chronicles the quotidian highs and lows (and one full-on tragedy) of the financially stressed but loving March family: four sisters, a too-good-to-be-true mother, and an absent father.
In common with Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film, this Little Women is framed as Jo’s literary coming-of-age story. The action begins in a New York City boardinghouse, where she is struggling to sell her melodramatic “blood-and-guts” tales and developing a contrarian romance with the considerably older Professor Bhaer.
The musical offers somewhat superfluous reenactments of those tales, featuring Lisa Jane Casanave’s fantastical costumes. But most of the story takes place in Concord, Mass., where the focus is on familial bonds, complicated by sibling rivalry and loss.
The youngest March sister, Amy (an overly shrill Cara DiPietro), envies Jo and acts out in unpleasant ways, while Jo obsesses over her literary ambitions, Meg (Caitlin Ort) embraces romance, and Beth (Paola Morales) charms even a dour neighbor, Mr. Laurence (Philly favorite Frank X).
Perhaps to temper the show’s sentimentality, Al Rawas chooses to emphasize its humorous moments, epitomized by the etiquette-obsessed Aunt March (played with impeccable comic timing by Eleni Delopoulos) and the appealingly awkward Bhaer (a charismatic Jered McLenigan).
The comedy unfortunately veers toward the clownish in the case of Jo’s romantically charged friendship with Laurie (Jordan Dobson). Dobson, who understudied Tony in Broadway’s 2020 West Side Story revival, excels as a dancer, but, in an underwritten part, he never works up much chemistry with Issa’s Jo.
The score references Broadway balladry, operetta, and period dances, realized by choreographers Adrienne Maitland and Devon Sinclair on Quintessence’s small thrust stage. Dickstein’s mostly mundane lyrics often spin variations on single word: “Better” is Jo’s exasperated response to Professor Bhaer’s advice, “Delighted” is the prologue to a ball, and “Astonishing” is Jo’s anthem of passion and persistence.
Under Christopher P. Ertel’s music direction, the cast’s unamplified voices, while sweet, are sometimes overpowered by the five-piece band. The show is beautifully lit by Anthony Forchielli against the backdrop of Myra G. Reavis’ simple set, featuring bookcases decorated with statuettes and other knickknacks.
For all her obstinacy, Jo March, in Issa’s winning portrayal, seems more admirable than exasperating — a woman (unlike Alcott, who never married) who will end up having, and deserving, it all. This production’s gorgeous final image departs from the stage directions, turning the focus away from romance and toward the literary achievement that presumably matters more.
“Little Women: The Broadway Musical,” Presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave., through Dec. 31. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test required, plus IDs and masks. Tickets: $35-$65, with discounts and upgrades available. Information: QTGrep.org, 215-987-4450.