Last winter, The Full Monty, a guy-heavy show in both content and casting, was staged as a Mainstage Series musical theater production at the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM). This winter finds the opposite, with the female-driven show Little Women. Even if the show itself doesn't rise above mediocre, the CCM students put their usual and considerable talents to good use in this slightly uneven production.
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 navigate several flashbacks that aren't clearly defined. In this musicalization, the story's ending seems somewhat unlikely, because the audience hasn't seen enough emotional connection between the characters to support their actions and the decisions they make. Mr. Knee's book does make good use of humor, however, and the dialogue does a decent job of establishing time and place.
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 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.
Each member of the CCM student cast displays exquisite vocal prowess in singing the score, and the ensemble does a great job of believably playing a wide range of ages. As free-spirited Jo, Sara Sheperd shows herself to be a strong comedienne, and conveys the spunk, determination, and imagination the role requires. Ms. Sheperd's portrayal could, however, use a bit more warmth to balance out the strong-willed nature of the character. Sarah Jay is emotionally touching as Marmee and brings the requisite maternal strength to the part. Despite having less well-written roles, Lisa Weiner (romantic Meg), Alessa Neeck (sweet Beth) and Christy Altomare (bratty Amy) each create distinct and appropriate characters as the sisters. As their suitors, Preston Truman Boyd (John Brooke), Kyle Brown (Prof. Bhaer) and Max Quinlan (Laurie) provide some of the best singing (and that's saying a lot, with this cast) of the show and likewise convey very unique personalities. Carl Draper (Mr. Laurence) and Lexie Dorsett (Aunt March) get lots of laughs as the elders of the story.
Director Thom Christopher Warren's work is reminiscent of the staging of the Broadway production from just a few years ago. The comedy of the piece comes through extremely well, and the tone is appropriate. But the pacing seems off at times and the transitions aren't as smooth as they could be. The result is a production that too often drags. The limited but fun choreography by Patti James is highlighted in "Five Forever." P. Jason Yarcho capably leads a solid twelve piece orchestra.
The set for CCM's Little Women, like its direction, strongly resembles that seen on Broadway. Thomas C. Umfrid's designs, however, are handsomely rendered in all aspects and bring the various locales to life. The lighting by James Gage and projections from Tom Huston are slickly executed. The period appropriate and nicely detailed costumes are by Dean Mogle. On opening night, the performance unfortunately was beset by numerous sound and microphone issues.
The score and book for the musical adaptation of Little Women make any production a difficult one. As always, CCM shows why their graduates grace the stages of almost every musical currently on Broadway. The CCM cast for Little Women does all they can to make this show work. As has been the case repeatedly over the past couple of years, one has to question the choice of CCM show directors to play it safe by choosing old fashioned classics or lightwieght fare rather than challenging push-the-envelope pieces for their Mainstage productions. Cincinnati audiences also just saw the national tour of the show less than two years ago, and something new and fresh might have been wiser from an audience perspective. CCM's production continues through March 9, 2008.