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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Little Women at the Paramount Theatre

Also see David's review of Sweeney Todd

It's All True
Maureen McGovern
“Astonishing” is the big act one closing solo for the character of Jo March in the musical version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which is playing a one-week run here at the Paramount theatre in its national tour.  Unfortunately, due to the show’s unmemorable musical score by composer Jason Howland and lyricist Mindi Dickstein, this version of the classic tale is more underwhelming than astonishing. This despite a fairly well crafted book adaptation by Allan Knee, solid direction by Susan H. (The Secret Garden) Schulman, and a talented and energetic cast headed by veteran vocalist Maureen McGovern, recreating her Broadway role as the March family matriarch.

Spanning the years 1863-1867, the musical gets in all the well known and beloved events from the Alcott novel and three successful films derived from it. The story starts in New York in 1865 where Jo March (the Alcott surrogate character) is having a dismal time selling her penny dreadful tales of melodrama. We then flash back to Civil War era Concord, Massachusetts, as Jo relives precious memories involving her sisters Meg, Beth, Amy, their beloved Marmee, their wealthy and cantankerous Aunt March, and their neighbors the Laurences. Though times are hard they endure by remaining together. In act two Jo’s career, Meg’s marriage, Amy’s travels abroad, and especially Beth’s untimely demise wrench them apart, but by the time the curtain falls they are reunited in Concord for Amy’s wedding and Jo has not only found her own beloved Professor Bhaer, she has also written what will become known as Little Women.

Though there are too many March sisters to adequately musicalize in any detail, the real problem with the Howland/Dickstein score is how musically anachronistic it sounds, how Hallmark-card light many of its lyrics come across, and worst of all the fact that it is just plain unmemorable, except in three instances. Beth and Jo’s duet “Some Things Are Meant To Be” and Marmee’s “Days of Plenty” are warm and richly characterful songs, with real emotional power. Jo and Professor Bhaer’s charming show closer “Small Umbrella in the Rain” is so right that it makes you wonder why the other songs in the show range from pleasantly uninspired (Amy and Laurie Laurence’s “The Most Amazing Thing”) to blatant showstopper wannabe (“Astonishing”) to embarrassingly amateurish (Beth and Mr. Laurence’s “Off to Massachusetts”).

That the show is still moderately engaging is to the credit of Schulman’s brisk and generally uncloying direction, and to the talented company. Top-billed McGovern is an even more formidable vocalist than one remembers, and gives a solid, hearty portrayal of Marmee, highlighted by her deeply felt rendition of “Days of Plenty.” Kate Fisher makes Jo a feisty, likable, flawed yet determined heroine, and commits to her paltry but plentiful songs with such dedication that you ache to hear what she would do with something by Sondheim or Schwartz. Autumn Hurlbert’s subtly frail but never vapid depiction of Beth is quite impressive. Gwen Hollander sparkles as the self-centered young Amy, and Renee Brna brings quiet power to the underwritten role of Meg.  Stephen Patterson displays a fine voice and a comedic twinkle reminiscent of a young Robert Morse as Laurie, while Andrew Varela contrasts nicely with Fisher as the charming Professor Bhaer.

Louisa Flannigam is broadly humorous as both Aunt March and Jo’s NYC landlady; Robert Stattel offers an engaging grouch with a heart of gold as Mr. Laurence; and Michael Minakirk is stalwart in the paper thin role of Meg’s husband Mr. Brooke.

Michael Lichtfeld contributes an organic and appropriate choreography for what little dance the show requires. Derek MacLane’s scenic design uses set pieces and picture book pretty scenic backdrops in an effective, minimalist fashion, enhanced by Kenneth Posner’s effective lighting design. Catherine Zuber’s costumes capture the era quite well, as well as the family’s ability to dress well within modest means.

It is well known that the original songwriters for this Little Women were replaced by Howland and Dickstein, and that those writers are shopping their own version around now. My curiosity is aroused, for, though I am uncertain Alcott’s take can ever work successfully as a musical, I harbor a suspicion that, at the very least, it could work a good deal better than this one does.

Little Women runs through November 6 at the Paramount Theatre, 9th Avenue & Pine Street in downtown Seattle. For more information go on-line at www.theparamount.com.


Photo: Joan Marcus 



- David-Edward Hughes



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