, - SYNOPSIS - Lyrics from "Little Women"

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by . From Little Women


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It's nostalgic; It's earnest, Little Women at the Virginia Theatre is really the story of one little woman instead of the four March sisters and mother,Marmee. Most women are familiar with the Louisa May Alcott novel and at least one of the film versions depicting a Civil War-era family during a time of struggle, plucky sisters coping with the absence of their father, who is away on the battlefield. Money is scarce, life is hard, but the family is close, generous and devoted to each other. It's a warm and emotional story. It helps to keep that fact in mind.

The Broadway musical, directed by Susan H. Shulman, veers down a different path. With book by Allan Knee, this version of Little Women centers on Jo, the eldest sister. Knee opens the play four years after Jo moved to New York, struggling to become a writer. She has become friends with a fellow boarder, Professor Bhaer and, craving his approval of her writing, she acts out all the characters in her latest melodrama. She is intensely disappointed when he criticizes her efforts.

Flashback to Concord, Massachusetts, home of the March family. The focus has been set on ambitious, energetic Jo and this limits the scope of the story. Jo's sisters traditionally romantic Meg (Jenny Powers), pretentious Amy (Amy McAlexander), and sweet, fragile Beth (Megan McGinnis), dart in and out without much flesh on their characters. We never really get to know or care about them, even poor Beth. The unfortunate exception is Amy, an irritating boisterous brat who over enunciates her t's; a little of her goes far. The novel overflows with charm and warmth, but Knee jumps superficially from scene to scene, meandering without exploring. What's the glue that holds these girls together? How do their individual personalities mesh into a tender strength? We get a feeling of their closeness only when Marmee reads a letter from her husband, her daughters clustered about her. As for the charm of their life in Concord, we get anecdotal glimpses of social activities with lots of play-acting and too much of Jo's burning fire.

As a star vehicle, the casting of Sutton Foster as spunky Jo is perfect, though her energy edges toward mania. Throwing all she has into the role, Foster radiates an inner fierceness that drains attention from the other characters. Suiting her star status, Foster is awarded the requisite high decibel Act I audience pleaser, Astonishing, which she easily belts up through the balcony and out of the house. There's certainly a Tony Award nomination with her name on it.

Marmee, played with sensitivity by Maureen McGovern, is a devoted, wise mother. When McGovern sings Days of Plenty, encouraging Jo to keep going after the death of Beth, she injects the emotion the play craves. It's a song about loss and hope which McGovern delivers with heartbreaking honesty and beauty, and it's the spark that inspires Jo to write about what she knows best, her family.

In Marmee's earlier song, Here Alone, she is writing a letter to her husband, determined to sound brave and upbeat but revealing her loneliness, another touching moment, sung exquisitely. These two songs are the highlights in a forgettable score by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein. Dickstein's lyrics generally move the plot and often define the character; as with Beth and Jo's duet, Some Things Are Meant to Be, before Beth dies. The music, however, rarely stirs. Old-fashioned as this may sound, one wonders what Rodgers and Hammerstein could have created for these characters.

Also lacking is romantic chemistry. Meg and Mr. Brooke's romance is quickly jelled by a duet, More Than I Am, and then set on the back burner. John Hickok seems more earnest than loving in the role of Professor Bhaer, and the song he sings to woo Jo, Small Umbrella in the Rain, is a ho-hum ending to the show. Danny Gurwin plays Laurie, the puckish neighbor who suddenly reveals his love for Jo. Where did that come from? Robert Stattel as Mr. Laurence plays the role as it's given him; the problem is he starts off a curmudgeon and suddenly, softened by Beth's piano playing, he becomes Santa Claus. On target is Janet Carroll's rich, haughty Aunt March.

The set by Derek McLane includes two side scaffoldings where the little women scamper up and down the stairs. With a huge attic serving as Jo's sanctuary, it has a look of a large older home. Backdrop scenes evoke New England water-colors, effectively depicting the change of seasons, and costumes by Catherine Zuber are period perfect.

Little Women is credible enough family entertainment, spirited, sentimental, and suited for Broadway outings with daughters or nieces, aged 9 and over. But Christopher Columbus! -- after two hours and 45 minutes, we should know and care about all the Little Women -- Meg, Amy, and Beth -- not just Jo.




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