MERCERSBURG >> This is the year for drama at James Buchanan High School.

While popular Broadway musicals are the going game for area high school dramatics departments to tackle, JBHS has chosen on alternate years to provide their audiences with a drama.

This year's is a classic, heartwarming tale of a household of women: "Little Women," Louisa May Alcott's quasi-autobiographical tale of the four March sisters growing up in near-poverty in New England during the Civil War. The action is seen through the eyes of Jo March, a teenage girl with creative energies and a decided distaste for sedate, proper, ladylike behavior. The part is played by Shannon Quinn, a senior.

Performances are April 17 through 19 in the high school at 4773 Fort Loudon Road.

The school's long-time director of drama, Cecelia Parker, is retiring this year and a new director, Luke Spurgeon, has taken the baton.

While Spurgeon is not a new face behind JB's shows, he admitted that a straight drama is a learning experience for him. An accomplished pianist and vocalist with a career in opera, he joined the crew for the 2012 musical production, "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

"I was brought in to direct the pit orchestra and develop the vocals," he said. "Then during straight plays, my part was being at the piano at musical interludes between scene changes."

Nonetheless, he's discovered straight drama has a rhythm of its own, since the story is freed from following a musical score.

"In my background, the music propels the story," Spurgeon said. "The big moments happened in the big solo the female belts out — those solos drive the action."

It's liberating, he said. "They get to discover for themselves and create their own rhythm, phrasing, create their own 'music' as their character."

Mikalah Iverson, for example, a senior portraying the oldest daughter Meg, makes her character hiccup when she's nervous. It's just something she came up with, Spurgeon said.

"Watching them interact as sisters is so cool," he said. "The little glances they give each other, things they just discovered on their own."

Watching junior Geneva Myers "grow" into her part as Beth, the sister who becomes ill and dies, has made the director marvel. "She nailed it beautifully. Her understanding of family and relationships has grown so much ..."

Describing the scene in which Beth tells Jo that she is not afraid of dying, he said, "Every time we do that scene, everyone is crying."

The cast includes some faculty members, as well. As a smaller school, said Spurgeon, not as may students try out for parts. This year, a second-grade teacher, Karen Wise, portrays Marmee, the March girls' beloved mother whose husband is working in a war hospital far away in the nation's capital.

If he was worried about how people will relate to the story — "it's not a sweeping romance, not a comedy, there's not a lot of action; what's going to get people to get this?" — watching the cast rehearse blew those worries away.

"It's a single parent household, mom's working and trying to do her best. Who isn't dealing with loss and sickness? Who isn't dealing with who they want to be?"

Other key performers are freshman Claire Alfree as Amy March, junior Luke Leidy as the rich neighbor boy, Laurie, and junior Laura Metcalfe as Aunt March.

About the director: Luke Spurgeon, 31, is a demand performer of opera and concert works both in the USA and internationally. He retired from the international stage in 2009 to pursue work in the church (he is now associate pastor of Mt. Olivet Church, Chambersburg) although he occasionally steps back on stage.

If you go

"Little Women"

WHEN: 7 p.m. April 17 and 18; and 3 p.m. April 19

WHERE: James Buchanan High School, 4773 Fort Loudon Road, Mercersburg

COST: $4 adults, $2 students, free to ages 65 and older

TICKETS: At the door

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