Little Women: The Broadway Musical at The Brookfield Theatre of the Arts

David Begelman

Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Little Woman, published originally in two parts in 1868 and 1888 and as a single volume in 1880, has undergone many incarnations. Aside from its adaptation as a musical with a book by Alan Knee, music by Jason Howard and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, it also morphed into a play, and 13 separate films produced from 1917 to 2001.

And let’s not forget the opera by Mark Adamo, as well as the animated Japanese versions. In a Nintendo game, the players are Jo, Beth, Amy, and Meg, the names of the 4 March sisters in Little Women, one of the most popular coming of age novels ever published. It sold over 2,000 copies right off the bat, an overnight success in its time on any accounting.

Louisa May Alcott obviously had something going for herself in her literary efforts. A mystery about Little Women nonetheless still persists. Why is the author’s homespun yarn about girls growing up in a family without the presence of a father continually recycled as if there were no end in sight?

As far as musicals go, we have been drenched in a darker, more ironic side of life in works by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Kurt Weil, or Stephen Sondheim. Perhaps because of this, many of us ache for something more nostalgic, however sapped of serious dramatic conflict. The musical Little Women seems to serve up the right proportion of kitsch to satisfy the need. Maybe its sentimentalized and often one-dimensional treatment of the lives of the March family is just the right recipe—for some of us.

The musical follows the outlines of the Alcott novel, although it has been considered a “speed reading,” or overly manicured version of the book leaving out more nuanced aspects of the author’s original tale of family life.

The show involves the fortunes of the March family during the Civil War years. There is a mother, “Marmee,” (played in a focused and sensitive way by Jude Callirgos) and three daughters, the ambitious “Jo,” a principal character whose driving ambition to become a writer mirrors the same aspirations as Alcott (played with energy by Lori Mele); “Meg” (played teasingly by Caitlin Kuhfeldt); the often rebellious “Amy” (played with adolescent sass by Jillian Wipfler); and “Beth,” the vulnerable sister who perishes from the complications of scarlet fever (played by Zoe DeStories, the most accomplished vocal talent among the four female leads).

Other featured players include Billy Hicks, who plays “Laurie,” an affluent, but callow youth who is in love with Jo initially, but winds up marrying Amy, a sister who renounces being jealous of Jo as she ripens with maturity. William Lamoureaux plays “Mr. Laurence,” a rather stern, but in the end charitable neighbor of the Marches. Keith Johnson, plays “Professor Bhaer,” the proper and nervous suitor of Jo who finally marries her. Mr. Johnson’s vocal numbers displayed a fine tenor voice a bit overburdened with a vibrato in the higher register.

Mark Chisholm as “John Brooke” plays the intended of Meg, courting her in a circumspect way, although he is in the Union Army military. Elie Finkelstein plays Aunt March, a disapproving presence in the family circle, and an older widow whose wealth is doled out selectively. She is niggardly with financial support for Jo initially (although she arranges to leave the girl her home when she passes on), and is generous in supporting Amy’s trip to Europe to study art.

Director Alicia Dempster seems to have cut a few corners in staging Little Woman. A goodly portion of the action involved characters entering and exiting from the middle of a red curtain drawn across the stage.

Enactments of Jo’s literary gothic fantasies were by performers doubling in roles, but decked out in a hastily improvised patchwork of costumes. They moved awkwardly about the stage apron, cheapening an effect that could have been enhanced by more imaginative blocking and lighting design.

The set by Ms. Dempster and seven of her associates seemed slapped together somewhat arbitrarily. As a result, there was little to suggest a nineteenth century ambience, in either Mrs. Kirk’s Boarding House in New York City, the attic of the March home in Concord, Massachusetts, Aunt March or Annie Moffat’s home. Street scenes, like those between Professor Bhaer and Jo, were simply numbers performed in front of the indispensable red curtain.

Other discordant notes in the production were the use of hairpieces for Jo, Meg, and Amy that seemed artificial in appearance, while Jo’s mike swiveled conspicuously around the side of her head, rather than being hidden, as it was for the other characters.

However, it remains to be seen whether the most creative staging of Little Women could redeem a show that is, alas, bereft of memorable musical numbers, suffused with platitudes, and one that undertakes a sugarcoated tour through family life. Its next film adaptation might be entitled, “The Young, the Restless, and the Vapid.”

Little Women, the Broadway Musical opened at the Brookfield Theatre for the Arts (TBTA) on November 7,8,14,15,21,22 and November 16 at 2:00 PM. Tickets are $20, and reservations can be made by calling the box office at 203.775.0023 or online at www.brookfieldplayhouse.org.

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