Little Women - The Musical is a Good Old Fashioned, Amiable Musical
Jason Howard's music sounds like Frank Wildhorn in spots, with songs like "Some Things Are Meant to Be" and a catchy little melody that has a cakewalk sound called "Off to Massachusetts." Most of the melodies are sugary and the Dickstein lyrics keep the action flowing.
Allan Knee's book seems just too relaxed to get to the heart of the production. It's a pleasing but sedate visitation of this family of women who were made famous by Louise May Alcott's novel. The sympathy, heartbreak, euphoria and hope of everyday life that was the crux of her novel is not sustained in the musical as it goes swiftly from 1863 through the spring of 1867 in two hours and thirty minutes.
Little Women - The Musical starts out weakly with Jo sitting on stage reminiscing about her family, and then goes back to Christmas 1863 where Jo is preparing a blood and guts melodrama for her sisters and mother. It just feels a mite too chaotic, with flotsam and jetsam of brief songs. It finally comes together in the song "Our Finest Dreams" when the real action of the play starts. The musical follows the MGM treatment of the novel and it attempts to cover all of the key items of the book in a short space of time.
Kate Fisher as Jo has a commanding voice which reminds me of Sutton Foster. Her manner of acting is reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn's portrayal of Jo in the '30s RKO film. She is successful in showing a genuine imaginative drive that makes her mistrust and rebuff romance. Fisher is uplifting in the song "Astonishing" and exciting in "Better" and "The Fire Within Me."
All of the March sisters are marvelous to watch. Autumn Hurlbert is very believable playing the virtuous Beth with all of the syrupiness and fragility at her command. She is especially marvelous in a duet with Jo, "Some Things Are Meant to Be." Gwen Hollander plays the youngest sister Amy who is the brat of the family. She gives an effective performance in the first act as an obnoxious child who would shame Margaret O'Brien. Renee Brna as the older sister Meg is very engaging, especially in the ballroom scene with Stephen Patterson as Laurie.
Stephen Patterson seems just too foolish and inane in the first act, with his jumping around the stage. He has a great voice but the sound system on opening night gave his powerful voice a piercing quality. Robert Stattel who was in the original New York production plays Mr. Laurence and is properly gruff in his manner. Andrew Varela as Professor Bhaer gives a nice performance as the shy intellectual who is secretly in love with Jo. Louisa Flaningam plays two parts: the starchy Aunt March and Mrs. Kirk, the landlady of the boarding house in New York. She is very persnickety as the aunt although her voice seems like something out of a Disney feature length cartoon.
Set Designer Derek McLane has recreated the same design that was in the New York production, a quaint set with moving parts including garden trellises, ornate drapes in the March's living room and a beamed attic roof to create frames within the proscenium. There are also painted backdrops that appear occasionally. Catherine Zuber's costumes consist of elaborate frocks of the period. Douglas Coates leading the orchestra is always on the mark and the choreography by Michael Lichtefeld is minimal but sprightly. Director Susan H. Schulman does a fine job in helming the production.
Little Women - The Musical played at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts through October 23rd. The tour moves next to Salt Lake City, then Seattle and Nashville. For more information, visit www.littlewomenonbroadway.com/tour.html.
AMT of San Jose's next production will be West Side Story starring Diana DeHarmo, which opens on November 1 and runs through November 13th.