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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
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
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.
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