I first saw Little Women: The Musical on Broadway in January 2005 with the original cast during a terrible blizzard. Sutton Foster and Maureen McGovern were the stars, and there were several notable scenes and good performances. I knew then that it was far from a great musicalization of the novel by Louisa May Alcott, but it was a nice production I was glad to have seen during its rather brief run. Now Star Performance Academy brings Little Women: The Musical to the Columbus area with a cast of more age-appropriate actors in a scaled down production I enjoyed more than the one I saw on Broadway.
Little Women: The Musical has a book by Allan Knee with music and lyrics by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein, and it tells the story of the March family struggling during The Civil War. Awkwardly framed as a flashback, the play tells Jo’s story about her family in Massachusetts, a household of four daughters dealing with the loss of their father who is off serving as a chaplain in the war. Jo is an aspiring author, and she and her sisters Meg, Beth, and Amy perform the plays she writes, works filled with swashbuckling and adventure. The story of the March family unfolds over many years, one filled with love, heartbreak, betrayal, forgiveness, and even death, as they wait for the day when their father returns and their family is reunited.
Paula Shtein stars as Jo March, the perennial tomboy and leader of the March sisters. Ms. Shtein sings and speaks beautifully, and she has infectious stage energy that is delightful to watch. She is at her best sparring with her Aunt March (Jacquie Hurwitz, who takes crap from no one) and bossing her sisters around. The only flaw in her performance is that she seems to merely be tolerating many of her co-stars rather than genuinely caring about them. It’s a subtle glance this way or that and a barely noticeable scowl when some of her scene partners speak that barely shields what appears to be some contempt. So gifted is Ms. Shtein that she may often get frustrated performing with those of lesser talents as the burden of carrying the scene then falls to her, which she’s more than capable of handling but which can surely become tiring. Still, the show succeeds largely because of her, though in the future she might try to have more empathy towards the other players as her often lack of it shows on her face whether she wants it to or not.
Other standouts in the cast are the aforementioned Ms. Hurwitz as Aunt March, grouchy, strong, and formidable; Grace Wipfli as the girls’ mother, Marmee, so touching in her solo number “Days of Plenty” when she expresses remorse over the loss of one of her children; Zach Conaway makes a fine and handsome John Brooke, nervously courting Jo’s sister Meg; and Martina Holbrook as Beth and David Drummond as Mr. Laurence share an unexpectedly touching couple of scenes involving the old man’s piano.
Another surprising presence is that of Courtney Cunningham as Amy, the youngest of the March sisters. Aside from Jo, Amy is the character that we see grow the most throughout the play, starting as a bratty child who burns one of Jo’s plays to becoming a society-minded young woman who tours Europe with her Aunt March. Ms. Cunningham is a great match for Ms. Shtein in the scenes in which they fight as they both give as good as they get.
Director Keely Kurtas-Chapman once again guides a cast with varied theatre experience and positions them to show up their individual strengths. The shortcomings in the show all stem from the material and not these performers. There is an overly sweet quality to much of the writing that is too sentimental for its own good; the terrific 1994 film adaptation with Winona Ryder avoided this. An anthem song like “Astonishing” works against the basic story, proving to be a song about impressions more than feelings or achievements; whose goal is it to be “astonishing” anyway?
Little Women: The Musical is pleasant enough for children and fans of the book, and there are some genuinely good songs and scenes sprinkled about. I don’t think it has the ingredients of a great or even a good musical – it’s just fair – but it has enough going for it, including such a budding cast of young talent, that ultimately it is a production worth seeing, especially for the grade school age crowd, even though it may be a bit too saccharine at times for everyone else.
**/ out of ****
Little Women: The Musical continues through to November 21st at Star Performance Academy at 1701 Eastgate Plaza (the address is Columbus, but in reality it’s on the edge of Blacklick), and more information can be found at http://www.starperformanceacademy.org/