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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 20, 2005

issue of U.S. 1

Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Review: "Little Women"

Generations of little and not-so-little women have grown up reading

and loving Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical "Little Women." The

beloved story, first published in 1868, has been respectfully filmed

three times – with Katherine Hepburn in the role of Jo in 1933, June

Allyson in 1949, and Winona Ryder in 1994. It has now been more or

less respectfully adapted to the musical stage where the March girls,

Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy, can sing their hearts out and, of course, be

inspired by their beloved and devoted Marmee, who gives them the

prescribed motherly support though their coming of age.

Efficient is for the word for Allan Knee’s book. Knee, who has written

for stage and film, including "Finding Neverland" (nominatee for the

screenwriting Academy Award, based on his play "The Man Who Was Peter

Pan"), is also the author of "Syncopation," a play that had its New

Jersey premiere five years ago at the George Street Playhouse. Knee

has done the expected judicious trimming of the familiar plot, while

doing a bit of twisting about of time that only purists will find

discomforting.

This is the first major musical theater score for composer Jason

Howland. If the score shows more promise than fulfillment, it is still

light years ahead of many of the other new scores that have surfaced

recently. I was less than "Astonished" (also the name of Jo’s big Act

I solo aria) by the merely adequate lyrics of Mindi Dickstein.

However, the production team has collaborated to create, for a modern

audience, the old-fashioned urgencies that define this

female-propelled Concord, Massachusetts family during the course of

the Civil War. It is evident throughout that the talented, attractive,

and rather small company of 10 is putting its heart and soul into a

score that only occasionally fulfills our expectations.

What power the show has rests on the shoulders of Sutton Foster, the

engaging performer and Tony-winning star of "Thoroughly Modern

Millie." She is excellent as the courageous pre-feminist Jo (Alcott

was active in the women’s suffrage movement), who takes on the

challenge of being a successful and independent woman writer while

keeping her close ties with her more traditional sisters and mother.

The musical is, as is the novel, propelled by Jo. But unlike the

novel, in which Jo’s love for her family and her consuming ambitions

are established in the early scenes with great care, the musical

begins jarringly with Jo already living in the rooming house in New

York where she has been busy at writing and unsuccessfully trying to

peddle her undistinguished "blood and guts" romantic adventure

stories. Also dabbling with dramatic literature (as did Alcott), Jo

enthusiastically narrates some of her comically contrived "Operatic

Tragedies" to those who will listen. These are played out by garishly

costumed swashbuckling actors (all played by major characters). This

gimmick, nevertheless, is tiresome yet it is repeated to even less

amusing effect later in the musical. This opening scene leads to a

flashback in the March home where Maureen McGovern, as Marmee, wrings

out the musical’s first heartfelt moments with "Here Alone," as she

pines for her husband, an army chaplain off to war.

The musical, under Susan H. Schulman’s confident direction (who also

helmed "The Secret Garden"), doesn’t stray far from the novel’s

essentials. The younger sisters are variously sparked and or startled

by the older Jo’s dreams and behavior. Jo’s audacious reach for

independence is contrasted by the amusingly differentiated

personalities of her more traditionally motivated younger sisters.

Things happen fast, so familiarity with the book is not a bad thing.

Megan McGinnis is touching as the frail, ill-fated Beth yet has her

brightest moment singing a delightful ditty, "Off to Massachusetts,"

with her grandfather Mr. Laurence (Robert Stattel).

Jenny Powers is charming as the romantic Meg who meets and falls in

love Mr. Brooke (Jim Weitzer) faster than they can complete a waltz at

Annie Moffat’s ball. Amy McAlexander appears to be having a lot of

fun, as the spoiled and impetuous Amy. No one will be surprised that,

during a lengthy tour of Europe with her imperious Aunt March (Janet

Carroll), Amy has found love with Jo’s former suitor Laurie (Danny

Gurwin). And right from the start, we can see how the friendship

between Jo and the much older Professor Bhaer (John Hickok) will

develop and eventually be defined by the lovely "Small Umbrella in the

Rain."

There are two songs that are especially effective in stirring us.

"Some Things Are Mean’t to Be," which gives expression to the love

that Jo shares with the ailing Beth, and "Days of Plenty," a poignant

aria that conveys Marmee’s inner strength in the face of loss.

McGovern’s scenes are few but charged with her warming presence and

her amazing voice.

Sutton has a strong voice, but pitches "Astonishing" to an audience

that seemed willing to eat up her over-the-top belting of it.

Otherwise, Sutton gives an amusing performance, marked by her

tomboyish striding about in long skirts. Her robust body language and

broad facial expressions get the laughs they deserve and are

apparently meant to be slightly at odds with the quaintness of the

rest of the musical.

With the feel of turning pages in a book, Derek McLane’s pretty

settings fly away and glide off and on without too much fuss, as they

transport us from the boarding house, the March attic and parlor, Aunt

March’s house, a ballroom, to the beach at Cape Cod. Costumer

Catherine Zubor has wisely muted the outfits for the March women. With

similar artistry, lighting designer Kenneth Posner has bathed them all

in a pretty glow. Did I like it? It should have been better. What I

liked best was seeing lots of "little women" in the audience,

accompanied by their mothers and fathers laughing, weeping, and

responding enthusiastically to this classic story. **

– Simon Saltzman

"Little Women," Virginia Theater, 245 West 55th Street. $60 to $100.

212-239-6200.


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