Out & About: 'Little Women' charms at Lyric Music Theater in South Portland

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Louisa May Alcott was one of the brightest and best-remembered voices in a literary “golden age” that was famously characterized as “the flowering of New England.”

Alcott’s most famous novel was “Little Women,” and a fine community staging of its musical adaptation runs through this Sunday in South Portland.

The 1970s might be considered a decade of cultural flowering in Portland, with many musical ensembles forming during the decade. One that’s still going strong is the Blues Prophets, who will take the stage this Saturday at Portland’s One Longfellow Square.

Also this Saturday, a free public concert by the Miami-based Amernet String Quartet will be given at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

‘Little Women’

Literary historian Van Wyck Brooks vividly described the life, times and social milieu of the novelists, poets and essayists who flourished in New England during the 19th century. It was a “golden age” of sorts, and Brooks was its Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler.

Among the handful of women Brooks covered was Louisa May Alcott, a resident of Concord, Massachusetts. Alcott is best-remembered for “Little Women,” a novel that has never been out of print since its 1869 publication.

As Brooks explained in “New England: Indian Summer, 1865-1915,” its success was due to Alcott’s “high spirits that captivated the world in this charming book. She invested the Concord scheme of life with the gaiety and romance of a Robin Hood ballad.”

The novel has been adapted to stage and film several times. Lyric Music Theater is currently running a recent Broadway musical adaptation of “Little Women” in its South Portland playhouse.

The Broadway version’s book is by Allan Knee, with music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. It ran for 137 performances in early 2005.

“Little Women” is a semi-autobiographical tale set in Concord during and shortly after the Civil War. The principals are four sisters on the verge of adulthood – the meaning of “little” in the title – who struggle to discover their true identities amidst competing and conflicting demands.

Representing author Alcott, Jo March is the central character, and “Little Women” follows her efforts to succeed as a writer of romantic fiction. Jo is fiercely independent and equally fiercely devoted to family. A headstrong and sometimes short-tempered tomboy, Jo is delightfully played by Shannon Oliver, who infuses her feisty character with strength, charm and wit. She is nicely complemented by her three sisters: artistic Amy, played by Jericah Jo Potvin, romantic Meg, played by Jennifer Kennedy, and kind-hearted Beth, played by Gabriella Salce.

Director Joshua Chard also has a fine ensemble, representing other family members, suitors for the four sisters and a handful of other characters. The richly detailed two-level set, by Steve Lupien, is another high point of “Little Women.” Ditto Cindy Kerr’s costuming, replete with huge hoop dresses for the women.

I was totally charmed by Lyric’s production of “Little Women,” and would love to see it again if my schedule permits.

This past weekend I had a chat with Chard. Wearing his hat as Lyric’s marketing director, Chard mentioned two new efforts that his company is undertaking this season in order to reach new audiences. The first Saturday performances of each show will be interpreted into American Sign Language for the deaf and and hearing impaired.

On the second Saturday of each production a special “sensory-friendly” matinee will be added. The idea was inspired by the Theater Development Fund’s Autism Theater Initiative, which offers special Broadway performances in a welcoming environment for family and friends with children or adults on the autism spectrum or who have other sensory needs.

For these sensory-friendly performances, Chard explained that conditions will be adjusted to create a welcoming atmosphere, including soft lighting in the theater during the performance, an awareness of the effects of loud noises and jarring lighting effects on those with environmental sensitivities, and activity areas in the lobby for those who need to leave their seats during the performance.

Chard noted that these two programs jibe perfectly with his company’s overarching purpose. “Lyric’s mission is to present community theater that is accessible to all members of our community,” he said.

Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer Road in South Portland, presents “Little Women” through Jan. 29 with 7:30 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 799-1421.

Blues Prophets

Portland in the 1970s represents another “golden age” of sorts. It was a decade when music and theater flourished in this formerly gritty city.

Several of the musical groups that formed during the decade are still performing. In classical music, the Portland String Quartet launched its stellar career back then. In folk and pop, Schooner Fare and Devonsquare were two closely related trios that rocked the Holy Mackerel on Commercial Street. And the Blues Prophets began a run that’s now exceeded four decades.

Their shtick is simple: “straight-up Chicago-style blues,” according to co-founders D.W. Gill, who plays harmonica, and Doug Wainoris, lead vocalist and guitarist. Gill and Wainoris are the only original members among the current five-man lineup.

Over the years the Blues Prophets have played alongside James Cotton and Muddy Waters, but their base is in Maine, and they have legions of local fans who turn out in force to hear them play.

Catch the Blues Prophets at 8 p.m. Jan. 28 at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Amernet String Quartet

If your charge-card Christmas purchases are now coming due and the snowplowing bills are mounting, you might be interested in combatting cabin fever and getting out and about with a freebie concert. That’s what’s happening this Saturday, when the Bowdoin College music department hosts a free public concert by the Amernet String Quartet, four guys who are the ensemble in residence at the Florida International University in Miami.

Amernet specializes in re-imaginings of standard classical works and new music by living composers. Both these categories will be represented this Saturday. The first of the featured works will be Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous “Pathetique” sonata in an adaptation for string quartet.

The second category is represented by a string quartet by Vineet Shende, Bowdoin music professor and a rising star on the American new music scene. Shende, who grew up in northern India, boasts a broad and colorful palette, which includes rock, choral and orchestral. This recent venture into the string quartet format draws on his Indian roots.

Catch the Amernet String Quartet’s free concert at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28 at Studzinski Recital Hall on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Call Bowdoin’s music department at 798-4141.

The Amernet String Quartert gives a free public concert this Saturday at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.