Little Women The Musical review - a pleasantly wholesome interpretation of the classic novel
The show runs at the Park Theatre
This may be the ultimate ‘nice' musical: the humour is gentle, there's little dramatic conflict, the songs are pleasant, none of the characters are true villains, the quartet of sisters who make up the ‘little women' of the title genuinely love each other, even the death of arguably the most sympathetic character is presented as tastefully as is humanly possible…it's all, well, just incredibly nice. It's also longer than Les Mis. If you like your musical theatre ballsy and meaty, you may find all this wholesomeness a little hard to take.
The cause of this—or the blame, depending on your point of view—is the original source: Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel, which has spawned numerous screen adaptations, was ground breaking in its presentation of strong women forging their lives in difficult circumstances with a notable absence of men (thanks to the American Civil War). It was also very much a product of its time, despite the bracingly free-thinking heroine Jo March (superbly played here by Lydia White).
The problem for this musical treatment, which flopped in NYC, is that the musical theatre canon is already full of magnificent, formidable ladies, from Showboat's Julie LaVerne to Mrs Anna to Mama Rose to Mrs Lovett, all of whom are better and more vividly written than the March sisters in Allan Knee's workmanlike but uninspired book. Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein's songs (of which there are far too many, nobody in this show seemingly able to have a thought or feeling without singing about it) don't help, sounding mostly derivate of other, better scores, specifically Wicked and Sondheim's Sunday In The Park With George.
The 2004 Broadway original opened in the season after Wicked, which probably, by comparison, didn't help it's case for presenting powerful female protagonists in a musical setting. Despite the Herculean efforts of the excellent company here (casting director Jane Deitch has come up trumps), the same issue besets this new production, where the central characters look a bit anaemic up next to the Six queens, & Juliet's central character or Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cinderella.
All that said, White really does make a magnificent fist of feisty Jo, a whirl of brainiac energy, warm and kind, but with a ferocious edge that never threatens to become obnoxious. She also negotiates the rangy demands of the score with sweetness, skill and considerable power. Equally impressive is Savannah Stevenson's genuinely lovely Marmee, exquisitely sung and with just enough fire to avoid saccharine mawkishness. They have a beautifully acted, truth-telling scene near the end of the second half that has the ring of emotional authenticity.
I also loved Anastasia Martin's serious, quietly riveting performance as doomed Beth, the March sister who leaves the family saga early, yet whose absence infuses the rest of the story. Her kite-flying duet with Jo, "Some Things Are Meant To Be", is genuinely heartbreaking.
Bronagh Lagan's production doesn't always sit comfortably on a thrust stage in an intimate auditorium, and could do with more energy, pace and purpose. Many scenes conclude with a brief tableau at the back of the set but are not fully visible unless you're in the centre block. The five piece band sounds a bit thin but, thanks to the somewhat erratic sound design, still sometimes manages to overwhelm the singers.
It's worth a look for this cast and some sporadic moments of theatrical magic. Also, musical theatre completists are unlikely to want to miss it. It's just not a terribly interesting show, and one can't help but wish that all that talent had been lavished on something a bit more dynamic and worthwhile. It's nice.