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Chicago by John Olson

Little Women
National Tour at Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's review of The Well-Appointed Room

Little Women
Kate Fisher and
Maureen McGovern

Though the press kit tells me the novel Little Women consistently ranks among readers Top 10 lists, I had managed to miss exposure to it or any of its movie adaptations. Having finally seen the musical in the second stop of its national tour following last year’s Broadway run, I’m relieved to finally know Meg from Jo, Beth and Amy, to know that Marmee is not their maid but their mother, and to understand why the most significant male character in the story is named Laurie.

I’m happy to report that the role of Jo is in the exceptionally fine hands of Kate Fisher, who has been working her way up the ranks of regional theater and national tours and has played Cosette in Les Miz on Broadway. She’s entirely confident and winning as the star of a major national tour, delivering Jo’s pluckiness and heart while selling the songs without crossing the line into pushiness. The character of Jo has been a role model for girls and women (so I understand) for the past 130 years or so. She’s the focus of this version and Fisher’s ability to keep us entertained and engaged probably adds a lot to the experience of the show.

It’s Maureen McGovern, the only real name in the company, who’s actually billed above the title, reprising her dignified Marmee from Broadway. She’s a strong and touching Marmee, but her strength gets a bit into wooden territory. Her voice is still a pleasure to hear, though, and her minimally nuanced interpretation of the part is probably due more to Susan H. Schulman’s direction, a Wonderful World of Disney-like, idealized and romanticized view of the Civil War era, that one-dimensionalizes most of the characters. Only Jo is a bit more fleshed out, and while that may be logical given the story is supposedly Jo’s memoir, it makes for a rather bland, if well-intentioned evening.

Allen Knee's book condenses the novel and ten major characters into an easy-to-follow Cliffs Notes summary, but falls into the “Classics Illustrated” trap of rushing through plot at the expense of character development. Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein’s score is ambitious enough, and I wouldn’t mind hearing a number of the songs again (Laurie’s “Take a Chance on Me” and Meg and John “More Than I Am” are particularly nice). The book, though, doesn’t always “earn” its musical moments, as the songs seem to happen not because the feelings are too great for words, but because it's been six or seven minutes since the last song. There’s no particular chemistry between the show’s elements that might make this an inspired musical rather than merely a competent one.

Competent it is, though, and I have to imagine that audience members who loved the characters from the novel and the movies will enjoy seeing them here. The supporting cast is consistently fine and includes Robert Stattel repeating his Broadway role as Mr. Lawrence, Andrew Varela as Professor Bhaer (a role he understudied on Broadway), and Michael Minarik as John Brook. Stephen Patterson as Laurie looks like he may have spent too much time watching Norbert Leo Butz, but maybe he’s using a certain physical resemblance to use this role as an audition for gigs as Freddy in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Fiyero , either of which could provide longer employment than this show. He boasts a strong voice and a Butzian energy, both good things, but just pushes a bit much for such an otherwise reserved show. As the sisters, Gwen Hollander, Renée Brna and Autumn Hurlbert provide nice support as well.

Little Women, with its small cast and family-friendly content is likely to be a staple of high school productions for the next century, so the tour will be a good opportunity to see it with a top-notch cast. The production values from Broadway appear to be intact, including Catherine Zuber’s gorgeous period costumes, lighting design by Kenneth Posner and Derek McLane’s sets. I rather liked the set, with its rough-hewn wood giving more of a sense of period rusticity than anything else in the piece.

Little Women plays the Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago through February 5, 2006. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with matinees at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range in price from $18 to $80 and are available at Broadway in Chicago Box Offices (24 W. Randolph St, and 151 W. Randolph St.), through the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at 312-902-1400 or through Ticketmaster. The national tour continues through August. For tour information visit www.littlewomenonbroadway.com.


Photo: Joan Marcus

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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