Almost a year after Greta Gerwig released her take on Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic novel, Little Women has returned to our screens once again. This time, it’s in the form of an audio-play, courtesy of the Barnstormers. Having chosen the show way back in the spring semester, before the University announced that this fall would be completely online, the group lucked out in picking a show that, as producer Deb Weidman described, is “so story driven, so text driven, so character driven,” and could easily be translated to the audio format.
The show is boisterous and fun, bursting with energy and life. The cast and crew have done an impressive job of capturing the personalities of each character and showcasing the story without any of the visual elements of a normal production. Despite this being a first for the group, the GarageBand recording moves seamlessly between voices thanks to a combination of new microphones, the cast expertly muting and unmuting themselves on Zoom and the editing of Barnstormers alum Octavia Fitzmaurice.
In a similarly new move for the group, the show contains spoken stage directions, read by senior Kinsey Tyler. While at first this feels quite jarring, it eventually becomes another voice in the midst, blending in with the sound effects and the music, at times providing useful context and at others moments of humor.
This feels particularly odd near the beginning of the show; as we are still getting used to all the voices, the March sisters put on a play for their mother Marmee (junior Tere’ssa Fleming) and their maid/cook Hannah (junior Hannah Bruckheim). It is a play that Jo (sophomore Hanna Al-Kowsi) writes, directs and performs in alongside her sisters, where they all put on different voices. At one point, the dialogue goes:
AMY: “I’m fainting.”
STAGE DIRECTIONS: “Amy faints into the chair.”
JO: “You can’t just faint into a chair. You have to just drop, or it’s not fainting.”
Whether intentional or not, the addition of the stage directions in the middle of this exchange adds to the humor of the scene.
In an interview with The News-Letter, director Nadia Guevara added that the play is a moment when we get to learn more about the March sisters.
“You really get to see the true personalities of the sisters,” she said. “Even though they’re acting in a play, you can still understand the nuances of each March sister, which I think will be a good landing point for people when they get to that part in the play.”
While I agree that it is definitely a very fun part of the show, and much of the playfulness and joy shared between the sisters is encapsulated in this moment, it does appear very early on before you’re fully used to each character’s voice. While the cast are clearly leaning on the renown of Little Women, I imagine that it would be quite difficult to follow without prior knowledge of the plot.
Similarly, there are scenes that aren’t introduced by anything other than a musical interlude. While Peabody juniors Ashna Pathan and Vincent Fasano do a fantastic job as composer and pianist respectively, skipping out scenes that would typically contain a lot of action — such as Meg (junior Sandy Clancy) attending the ball and Amy (senior Ritika Kommareddi) falling through the ice — does cause a bit of confusion.
That being said, it was clearly a fun scene for the cast. Kommareddi commented that she “really enjoyed it just because it was so weird and haphazard — at least it’s supposed to feel haphazard.” Clancy agreed that “it really brought out the sisterly love, because you could hear us laughing at each other as we’re doing the voices.”
Every actor mentioned that a highlight of the production was getting to laugh with their friends and be back in rehearsals, even if they were happening over Zoom and eventually with the cameras off. The play provided both cast and crew with a sense of normalcy and structure amid the chaos that has been 2020.
In an interview with The News-Letter, sophomore Owen Welsh, who played Laurie, emphasized that despite rehearsals taking place over Zoom and the condensed timeline of the production, bonding with everyone involved with the show was still possible.
“I was surprised at the amount I got to know my cast and crew mates, even in such a short amount of time and with the modality of the production,” he wrote.
The Zoom format, however, did pose challenges at times, from faulty wifi to the new experience of acting with a blank screen.
“When you’re doing a scene with someone, especially a scene that’s emotionally intense and you can’t look at them, it’s very odd,” Al-Kowsi said. “It’s more difficult to connect with someone purely vocally when you can’t physically be near them and make eye contact.”
One positive of the audio-only format, Weidman explained, is that the audience can imagine for themselves what the characters look like.
“It is this cool opportunity where they can imagine their Amy being whoever they think Amy would be, or their Laurie being whoever they think their Laurie would be,” she said.
Similarly, while the crew did put together costumes, lighting and stage design that can be seen in the program, the audience is free to imagine the world they want the play to exist in. Guevara explained that she “insisted on lots of dreaming from everyone involved,” and I think this extends to the audience as well.
While not having a visual aspect to the play removed any accessibility barriers for the cast — backgrounds weren’t a limiting factor to audition and the Barnstormers board shipped everyone microphones and filters — this does pose an issue for anyone hard of hearing. Weidman noted that this is something they are looking to work on if they are still creating shows online in the spring.
“We definitely want to have either real-time captions, like you typically would see, or even just a narration to pull on the side,” she said.
With the possibility of continued online productions, hopefully the Barnstormers’ new skills in vocal performance will help them moving forward.
Al-Kowsi stated that playing a character where voice was a key aspect of the performance transformed how she thought about acting.
“I grew as an actor from this experience simply because I was forced to think about the process in a way that I had never done before,” she said.
If you have a few hours to spare and want to cozy up by a fire, go for a long walk or just sit down and listen to a familiar story from actors who have clearly enjoyed creating a show for you, then hop onto Broadway on Demand and listen to the production of Little Women.
Little Women, the audio-only play, is available to listen to on demand through Broadway on Demand until Dec. 13. Tickets are $3.95 for Hopkins students and $7.95 otherwise.
Correction: This article originally stated that the play’s stage directions were read by Kinsey Taylor instead of Kinsey Tyler.
The News-Letter regrets this error.