Live theatre returns to UMD stage with “Little Women”

by Andres Roa

Live theatre returns to the University of Maryland on Oct. 28 with a new take on the Broadway favorite “Little Women” and updated safety guidelines.

The musical marks the return of in-person theatre to the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Audience members must wear a mask and are strongly encouraged to be vaccinated.

This performance of “Little Women,” based on Louisa May Alcott’s novel, features an all-student cast and crew and was first slated to go up before the pandemic but was delayed.

“It was something that had to be done live and not something that could be done virtually,” said Alvin Mayes, the co-director of “Little Women” and the principal lecturer and head of dance performance and scholarship at the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies.

“Little Women” is an opportunity to showcase a work “that shows the importance of women in culture, and the struggle to get to where they are,” Mayes said.

That marks a difference in the traditional performance of this musical, and a departure from the original 2004 Broadway cast which featured Sutton Foster and three other white women in the leading roles of the March sisters.

He and co-director Scot Reese used “racially-conscious casting” to cast an integrated show with men and women from many cultures, including members of the Hispanic, Black, Asian and white communities.

Leilani Clendenin, a senior theatre and voice performance double major, plays the lead as Jo March in UMD’s production of “Little Women.” Clendenin, who is Black, said she was apprehensive to play Jo, the sister originally played by Sutton Foster, who is a white woman. 

“This is a very white experience, and I am so clearly a black girl,” Clendenin said. 

Leilani Clendenin as Jo March. Photo by David Andrews.

She pointed to a part of the musical where her character talks about Christopher Columbus. Clendenin said she was uncomfortable saying Columbus’s name because of its history of violence and colonialism — and didn’t think she could say his name without her distaste coming through.

Her feelings changed when she met the cast. 

“It was like a Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella’ moment for me and I just saw it so clearly,” Clendenin said. “This beautifully diverse cast in each of their own ways probably had the same struggle as me and came to the same conclusion.” 

For Clendenin, that conclusion was that “Little Women” is not an inherently white show, but a story that can transcend class and race.

This production is different in its casting as well as its design. Ashlynne Ludwig, a third-year MFA Candidate in Costume Design, oversaw the costume design for the show for her thesis. 

She said the creative team wanted to make the show “light and beautiful and just graceful…to take away some of the heaviness of the 1860s,” and approached the design with a more modern aesthetic that acknowledges and pays homage to the Victorian era but is not bound by its rules. 

Ludwig said the team is excited to have a live audience in the theatre for the first time in over a year. They also hope this production of “Little Women” will allow the young women onstage to live in a more “timeless place that feels more applicable to 2021.”

“Little Women” runs from Oct. 28 to 31 and attendees can pay what they choose for tickets.

Featured image: The March sisters on stage. Photo by David Andrews.

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