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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Alcott's theme of family solidarity --especially the powerful bond between sisters-- plus the blend of romance and budding feminism depicted through believable characters broke new ground for young adult fiction and made Alcott a best-selling author. Not only did Little Women seed three sequels -- Good Wives, Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys and Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out -- but numerous stage and film adaptations, with video renters able to choose versions starring Katharine Hepburn, June Allison or Winona Ryder.
Composer Mark Adamo's opera version of Little Women, which premiered in Houston six years ago has proved to be one of the great new opera successes, with productions by at least thirty-five companies as well as a national telecast on PBS' Great Performances. Audiences have responded positively to the music that's been described as Puccini-esque and with arias that "slip effortless from slithery, shimmering modernism to Bernstein, Gershwin, Rossini, Lehar." I wish this contemporary musical version the same sort of success. However, while the production has many assets, Jason Howland's pleasantly melodic score and Mindi Dickstein's lyrics, which work well with Allan Knee's book, lack the uniqueness and power that contributed to the enduring popularity of Alcott's characters.
The show, originally developed by Knee as a play for Theatreworks/USA has had a long journey to Broadway. This journey includes lost and found producers, a change of composer and director.
With just ten actors and a dozen musicians in the pit Little Women is a chamber musical but with all the elements of a big show: a Tony-winning star, a director with prime Broadway show credentials, a top caliber creative team and the usual multi-million capitalization. Oh, and let's not forget head mikes to insure that all the songs can reach crescendos pitched to the stratosphere, especially those belted out by Sutton Foster.
Except for those mike-boosted crescendos, you couldn't wish for a more ideal choice than Foster to play the gangly Jo March. She's got the acting, singing and dancing chops to nail the physical and emotional demands of the character and the music. Her timing and comic skills come into play in production numbers like "An Operatic Tragedy" (clearly an attempt to capture some of the pizzazz of Wicked). The exuberant "Astonishing", another nod to Wicked, (specifically, that show's anthem-like "Defying Gravity") is a testament to the twenty-nine-year-old Foster as a reasonably believable eighteen-year-old. There's also her way with a ballad as evident in the heart stirring "Some Things Are Meant to Be" with the dying Beth (Megan McGinnis).
The flashback and forward story telling structure introduces us to Jo in New York where she's come from her home in Concord, Massachusetts, to make her way as a writer at a time when publishers wrote rejection letters telling young female authors to "go home and have babies." It introduces Professorr Bhaer (John Hickok) her fellow boarder, friend, mentor and paves the way for a more romantic turn of events after the story flashes two years backwards and then forward to the post-boarding house period.
The "An Operatic Tragedy" number begins as dialogue, with Jo reading her blood and action tales to her landlady (Janet Carroll) and Professor Bhaer and metamorphoses into the characters (played by the same actors portraying the March family and friends) coming to life on the upper tier of Derek McLane's tall, scene-change friendly set (evocatively lit by Kenneth Posner). Foster segues with perfect timing between speaking, singing and lip-synching.
The double-cast ensemble is generally excellent. Maureen McGovern unfortunately has too little to do as Marmee and only two solos, one of which, "Days of Plenty," is probably the show's most memorable song. It was the big show stopper at the performance I attended.
Jenny Powers as the sister who first breaks the pledge of the March girls to be together forever, has charm and looks to match her voice. Megan McGinnis does well by the doomed Beth. To add a bit of stress and strife to the sibling compatibility, there's Amy McAlexander as the willful but artistic Amy. Jim Weitzer, John Hickok and Danny Gurwin, fine singers all, create nicely differentiated romantic interests. Janet Carroll adds the right degree of acerbity to the role of the rich and etiquette-minded aunt.
Susan H. Schulman moves the cast through the story's several years and numerous scene shifts without too many seams showing. However, she should have applied a once is enough dictum to the re-enactments of Jo's early adventure stories. Choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, who worked with Schulman on The Secret Garden and The Sound of Music does his best to enliven the proceedings. However, as in those shows, choreography does not figure as importantly here as it did in Sutton Foster's career-making debut show, Thoroughly Modern Millie. With Catherine Zuber handling the costume design, it will surprise no one to hear that the costumes are one of the show's prime assets (though realists may quibble that they're a tad too fancy for a family so hard pressed for money).
I saw Little Women the day after re-visiting Fiddler on the Roof. Both shows are loaded with rose-colored sentiment. While it's probably unfair to compare the music of a show with songs that have become as familiar as the National Anthem with one seen and heard for the first time, I doubt that even if you saw Little Women half a dozen times, it would give you anything that you are likely to come to recognize the minute a few notes from the score are struck. The same applies to the lyrics, though Beth's catalogue of timeless things in "Some Things Will Never Die" and her pleas for Jo to "let me go now" are guaranteed to make many young eyes well up with tears -- so, if you plan to bring a pre-teen daughter, don't forget the tissues.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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