The blurb for Lil Women in this year’s festival guide promises that the show will “Combine the classic Little Women with rap music.” And, well, it does that — but not much more than that. And it leaves you wondering why it did that in the first place.
There’s a lot to enjoy about Lil Women, which has been touring various Fringe festivals since 2012 and which comes to DC courtesy of the Orlando-based Lil Theatre Company. The performers are clearly having a good time and want you to do the same, and they’re clearly invested enough in the project to have stuck with it for years — and to have created some slick-looking official merchandise for sale in the lobby to support their travels.
Isaac Folch’s score is skillfully composed and sprightly, and his rap lyrics are often genuinely clever. Molly Brennan shines with spunky charisma as Jo March. Nicole Farmer (a warm, maternal Marmee) and Ryan Frosteg (a lively John Brooke with some killer dance moves) often steal the show; they’re both great in their main roles, but I also enjoyed their turns as two bullies teasing poor young Amy (Croix Provence, who brings the right combination of brattiness and sweetness to the role). John Brooke and Laurie (Cody Howard, who is charming) are transformed into a sort of boy-band — Justins Timberlake and Bieber, respectively. Molly McCormick is a suitably nerdy and reserved Meg. Mikayla Phillips’s Beth is vulnerable and lovely; her singing voice is also lovely, and I wish we’d gotten to hear more of it.
The costumes are gorgeous, and the production elements are solid. The staging is blocky and leaves a lot to be desired, though; there are only so many times you can form a stiff tableau around that one stage-left chair, and the actors often relate to one another like a middle-school dance, awkwardly and at arm’s length.
Lil Woman: a rap musical
Presented by Lil Theatre Company
Details and tickets
“Awkward” is a word that came to mind more than once when I was watching Lil Women. Awkward can be charming, and the show did have its charms. But it could also just be awkward. It’s awkward when a bunch of young white people are trying to speak rap as a clearly second language. It’s awkward when the characters are uttering mannered, frankly boring Alcott-ese one minute and rapping in contemporary (and often distinctly black) idioms for no particular reason the next. It’s enough to make you wonder whether the composer and the writer, Lindsay Taylor, ever actually spoke to one another when working on this project.
This tonal whiplash is Lil Women’s most significant flaw, and the reason so many of its dramatic choices either make very little sense, or don’t pack the necessary emotional punch. Why on earth is Marmee hosting a rap battle? Wasn’t I actually supposed to care when Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, or when Jo cuts her hair? And if we’re modernizing the story by turning it into a rap musical, why is the spoken dialogue and the overall narrative such a straightforward adaptation of the novel?
The “why” of the rap battle, I assume, is because it seems like a funny idea. But if you’re going to go for whimsical absurdity, you need to commit to that the whole time, instead of doing whatever weird hybrid of silliness and too-earnest storytelling that this turned out to be.
Lil Women is at its best when it’s at its silliest — or rather its most spontaneous, since the silliness of the rap numbers often feels forced. My favorite moments were the few moments of dialogue that felt like contemporary ad libs, or when we departed from the boring domestic scenes around the rocking chair to start dancing or throwing limes, or when Father (EB Heldt) made a hilarious real-life entrance after having been consigned to letter-writing for most of the show.
Lil Women: a Rap Musical has been around in some form since 2012, but you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a ripoff of Hamilton. But Hamilton isn’t successful just because it’s a rap musical about people from another century. It’s successful because it has a coherent aesthetic and a reason for being the way it is.
Louisa May Alcott’s novel is about growing up and finding yourself in a society that has little interest in helping you do so. It’s about identity and ambition, family and loss. Lil Women feels like a show, and perhaps a company, that is still imitating others while it works on finding an authentic identity. But that’s part of growing up, too.
Lil Women: a rap musical . Music and Lyrics by Isaac Folch, Book by Lindsay Taylor . Directed by Lindsay Taylor. Choreography by Savannah Simerly . Cast: Molly Brennan, Molly McCormick, Mikayla Phillips, Croix Provence, Nicole Farmer, Cody Howard, Ryan Frosteg, EB Heldt . Produced by Lil Theatre Company . Reviewed by Emily Crockett.