Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sisters' story has universal appeal

Take tissues to timeless tale of family bonds

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If the mere thought of the classic novel Little Women -- or the beloved movie versions of it -- makes you tear up and need Kleenex, you're not alone.

Generations have sobbed through the most tragic scene in Louisa May Alcott's semi-autobiographical 1869 story of the four March sisters, which we won't reveal here in case there's anyone who doesn't know it.

And yes, there's been sniffling and eye-dabbing at rehearsals for Little Women: The Broadway Musical, being mounted by Dry Cold Productions tonight through Sunday at the Shaw Performing Arts Centre at The Forks.

"Yesterday I said, 'Today, I'm not going to cry. The director shouldn't cry,'" Rob Herriot, who is helming the 10-performer musical, says with a self-mocking chuckle.

The local director, himself one of four siblings, says the story set in Civil War-era Massachusetts is so honest in its depiction of the rivalry and loyalty between modest Meg, tomboy Jo, sensitive Beth and spoiled Amy, it continues to resonate today.

"It just touches something in you about your siblings," says Herriot, 46. "Alcott didn't sugar-coat family life. She told it as it was, which is why it has depth and meaning.... You hurt the ones you love the most."

Herriot thinks Little Women deserves its reputation as an influential feminist work that allowed each sister individuality and presented life paths other than marriage and children.

"It was ahead of its time. It's about being a person, not a man or a woman."

Herriot recalls being "blown away" in his early 20s by the life lessons in the 1949 Technicolor movie version with June Allyson as Jo and Elizabeth Taylor as Amy.

The musical, with book by Allen Knee, music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickson, includes most of the cherished incidents from the book, such as Amy's spiteful burning of Jo's manuscript and Jo selling her hair to buy a train ticket for Marmee.

It opened on Broadway in 2005 and closed after just four months. There was a 30-city U.S. tour in 2005-06 and a Canadian production last year at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre.

Herriot and Stephanie Sy, who is playing the central role of Jo, the ambitious writer, say the musical's songs are contemporary and pop-influenced. A three-piece band -- piano, violin and cello -- accompanies the show.

The vivacious Sy, 26, is a University of Winnipeg theatre grad and Sisler High School alumna. She was raised in the North End by musical immigrant parents from the Philippines.

She says Jo's dilemma of needing to spread her career wings but feeling too attached to her family and too safe in her comfort zone speaks directly to her current life.

"Jo is completely me right now," says the petite powerhouse singer, who is also one of four close siblings.

Sy, who earned her professional Equity card this summer by playing Rusty in Footloose at Rainbow Stage, has shone in Winnipeg musicals such as Avenue Q, Zanna, Don't! and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

She knows it's time to test herself in a bigger market. This summer she moved all her belongings to Toronto. As soon as Little Women wraps up, she'll "conquer fear" and start living there.

"I just wish I could bring my family with me," she says.

Little Women: The Broadway Musical

Shaw Performing Arts Centre

Tonight to Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.

Tickets $35 (students $20) at 204-942-8898

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 19, 2012 D4

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