Saturday, May 13, 2006

Little Women (Playhouse Square Center)

‘LITTLE WOMEN’ is a pleasant musical, but....

It’s rather amazing to realize that Louisa May Alcott's book ‘LITTLE WOMEN,’ which was published in 1868, has never been out of print and is still selling thousands of copies every year. Changing the format of a classic is a daunting task. How many times have you heard the phrase, “It’s not as good as the book?”

Allan Knee, who wrote the book for the show, had to be careful not to offend people who have set images about what each of the characters not only looks like, but how their very persona operates. Mindi Dickstein, in writing the lyrics, had to keep the correct Alcott tone of verbal sound and idea development in mind as she wrote what the performers would sing. Jason Howland’s music needed to develop not only the right tone for the era but also for helping develop the highs and lows of the lives of the March family. Each basically succeeded.

‘LITTLE WOMEN, THE MUSICAL,’ which is now on stage at the Palace Theatre examines the saga of the March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy—as they grow up in Civil War America.

The musical received mixed reviews when it opened on Broadway. It played 55 previews and only137 regular performances, making it far from a smash in spite of having superstar Maureen McGovern in the cast.

One reviewer stated, "Little Women isn't the most sophisticated or rapturously melodic show you'll find on Broadway. But this chamber-size musical pulses with a generous affection for its source material and a refreshing realization that Broadway audiences don't always need to be wowed. It is a comfortable, honest, highly satisfying night at the theater."

The musical gained a Tony award nomination for Sutton Foster for her portrayal of Jo, who dreams of becoming a writer and finds unexpected love. The production did receive seven 2005 Audience Award nominations.

‘LITTLE WOMEN’ is not a wonderful theatre script. It will never be compared with the likes of ‘MY FAIR LADY’ and ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ which are based on material from another source. This does not mean it is bad, it just isn’t a great. It is much in the vein of ‘SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS,’ ‘SHE LOVES ME,’ ‘THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG’ and ‘PLAIN AND FANCY.’ They aren’t splashy musicals, just pleasant experiences. They are the kind of scripts that make for successful community theatre productions.

The touring presentation brings everything necessary to the stage. It is well directed, well acted, is fully-orchestrated, and has all the technical aspects needed for a professional production.

Based on the publicity for the show one might think the lead character was Maureen McGovern, who for over 30 years has had a career which spans recordings, concerts, composing, theatre, film television and radio. That is not so. Susan Spencer, who plays Jo is the fulcrum around which the play turns. Spencer, has a wonderful voice and basically develops the role, though she might have shown a little more “tom-boyish” qualities. Her duet, “Some Things Are Meant to Be,” sung with Autumn Hurlbert (Beth) was poignant.

As Marmee (Mother), McGovern is endearing. Her voice is strong and vibrant. Her renditions of “Here Alone” and “”Days of Plenty” were show-stoppers.

Gwen Hollander (Amy) and Renee Brna (Meg) were both excellent. Stephen Patterson, who portrayed Laurie, the neighbor who loves one of the sisters but marries another, was superb. He lights up a stage. His “Take a Chance on Me” was delightful.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Anyone who has or is going to see ‘LITTLE WOMEN’ will probably leave satisfied, but not exhilarated. It is a pleasant experience. The cast is good and the production gets a full, quality level staging.