The 2004 – 2005 Season on Broadway was a strong one, producing four strong Best Musical Tony nominees (Light In the Piazza, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Spamalot) that Cincinnati audiences will see between September and December of this year via their national touring companies. Less well received that same season was a musical version of the classic novel Little Women. While the four nominated shows all continue to play in New York, Little Women quietly closed after only a few months. However, it was the first show of the season to embark on a national tour. As seen now at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, the show contains nothing that is embarrassingly bad, but also presents nothing that is especially intriguing, moving, or special. The musical is an example of steady blandness in its most generic form.
Written in 1868, Louisa May Alcott's timeless story gives a fictionalized account of the young author's life with her sisters during The Civil War. Little Women is the coming of age story of the March sisters (Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy) chronicling their hardships, joys, and heartbreaks.
The book of the musical by Allan Knee adapts the story with some alterations, and furthers the episodic nature of the novel. Though changes were necessitated due to time constraints (singing songs, especially ones that don't advance the plot much, does take up time), the resulting streamlining hurts the clarity of storytelling and causes a diminished level of warmth and energy. Both acts of the show begin with a dramatized staging of one of Jo's creative stories, and while this framework infuses some excitement into the proceedings, it requires audience members to follow a less than clearly defined flashback at the beginning of the show, which could be confusing to some of the younger theatergoers. In this musicalization, the story's ending seems unlikely, because the audience hasn't seen enough emotional connection between the characters to support their actions and decisions they make.
The songs by Mindi Dickstein (lyrics) and Jason Howland (music) are generally pleasant and hummable, but sound too modern for the time period and rarely rise above mediocre. The songs that come across the best, such as "Take A Chance On Me," "Astonishing" and "Here Alone," seem aided more by solid orchestrations (from Kim Scharnberg) or vocals than by especially strong melodies and words. Douglas Coates leads a talented orchestra.
Billed above the title for the national tour of Little Women is songstress Maureen McGovern. McGovern's rich singing voice provides welcomed luster to her material, and she displays abundant stage presence. However, her role is certainly secondary to that of protagonist Jo. As the musical's leading character, Kate Fisher shows the free-spirited spunk and imagination needed as Jo, and handles the singing responsibilities of the role admirably. Like Ms. Fisher, the actresses playing the other March sisters, Renee Brna (romantic Meg), Autumn Hurlbert (sweet Beth), and Gwen Hollander (immature Amy), each sing and act well enough, but seem limited somewhat by the quality of the material they perform. Providing fine support is the rest of the 10 member cast: Andrew Varela (Prof. Bhaer), Stephen Patterson (Laurie), Robert Stattel (Mr. Laurence), Neva Rae Powers (Aunt March), and standby Kevin Duda (Mr. Brooke).
Director Susan H. Schulman provides the appropriate tone for the piece, and the humor within the story comes across well. However, the overall enthusiasm and emotion are lacking, and some minor cuts could be made in favor of further character/relationship development. The limited choreography by Michael Lichtefeld is appropriate.
Little Women boasts some of the best designers in the business. Derek McLane supplies a handsome set, though Jo's beautifully rendered attic feels far too large. Kenneth Posner's lighting includes some finely detailed work, and Catherine Zuber's costumes are attractive and period appropriate.
This Little Women is a missed opportunity. With a story of great emotion and a core audience (women) that is eager to buy tickets to the theater, someone could have created a musical adaptation that rose above "decent." This version is likely to satisfy those who loved the novel, and there are surely some elements that are worthwhile. However, as Cincinnati audiences will see when comparing this show to the other Tony nominees from that season, expectations for Broadway shows are higher than what Little Women achieves. The tour continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio through June 25, 2006. For more information and tickets, call (513) 241-7469.