Review • Little Women: The Musical

[Owing to space constraints, this review was slimmed by one-third when it ran in the January 23, 2014 issue of the Inlander. For the sake of archival completeness, I’m publishing it here in full.]

On the bookshelf that holds the span of novels that would make questionable musicals, surely Little Women has a place. Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical story of four sisters from a penniless family finding their respective paths into adulthood—incredibly popular when it was published in 1868 and no less so today—wouldn’t seem to lend itself to gleaming Broadway grins and belted notes at first glance. Or at a second. Or even a third.

Roused by the challenge, or just entertaining hopes of mainstreaming the success of Little Women’s 1998 operatic incarnation, Jason Howland (music), Mindi Dickstein (lyrics) and Allan Knee (book) set about adapting the novel nevertheless, eliminating and simplifying its characters, translating interior monologues and setting them to music, paring down the plot to its most skeletal form.

Their Little Women: The Musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2005, is more like the CliffsNotes version of Alcott’s book – if, that is, CliffsNotes read like parodies of the text they were meant to summarize and were also able to break into song. The characters are so absurdly over the top, the lyrics such wearying restatements of the obvious, that there seems to be very little difference between the musical’s cheerful recreations of protagonist Jo March’s melodramatic fiction (she’s a budding writer, we’re reminded countless times) and the larger narrative of love, loss and individuality.

Beth March (Marta Meyers, holding kite) and Jo (Bethany Smith) say their goodbyes in Little Women: The Musical.

Beth March (Marta Meyers, holding kite) and Jo (Bethany Smith) say their goodbyes in Little Women: The Musical.

Though underserved by the musical itself, the Lake City Playhouse cast and orchestra still give fine performances. As the impetuous, idealistic March sister, Bethany Smith is impressively charismatic and sings with precision as well as gusto; for better or worse, her Jo is true to the spirit of this musical. She’s joined by Christine Mullaly (as eldest sister and homebody Meg), Marta Myers (sober Beth) and Caitlin Duffey (status-seeking Amy). All three are well cast, with Mullaly—one of several regular Lake City actors to appear in this production—quite at home in a more prominent supporting role.

Brendan Brady has shifted between lead and lesser roles on the Lake City stage with ease, and he’s sympathetic and believable as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence III (arguably more than Alcott’s less fair-haired original). He and Duffey were paired in last year’s Sweeney Todd, and their sprightly Irving Berlin-esque duet “The Most Amazing Thing” is one of this musical’s highlights. Daniel Bell, who played Sweeney Todd himself, has a smaller role here as the staid Prof. Bhaer. He brings—much like Myers’ Beth—some self-restraint to balance Jo’s brash hyperactivity. If that contrast isn’t already apparent as the musical winds down, the duet “Small Umbrella in the Rain” will put an even finer point on it. Subtlety is not Little Women’s strong suit.

Little Women’s live orchestra does well under Zack Baker’s baton. The musicians’ position behind the stage has never been optimal, but the audio has more depth than in past productions, thanks to a relocated sound booth.

The set, however, isn’t the venue’s finest hour. Instead of depicting an all-purpose interior location or something abstract but thematically apt, designer and director George Green has opted instead for a messy hybrid of the two. Kites and open books are tacked to mottled orange-brown walls. The objects make sense: kites and books feature in the story and symbolize the whimsy and imagination that fuel Jo’s unconventionality. But their background could easily have been sky blue with clouds or a lively verdant green. Anything but the drab swampiness of the current color.

Given its billboard-style take-home messages and turgid characters, this is a safe, anodyne bet for family entertainment, even if the musical doesn’t really succeed as a standalone work.

Little Women: The Musical • Thu-Sat, 7:30 pm; Sun, 2 pm; through Feb. 1 • $13.75-$19.75 • Lake City Playhouse • 1320 E. Garden Ave., Coeur d’Alene • • (208) 667-1323

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