I can honestly say Little Women is easily one of the best new Broadway musicals to have opened this season, but that's a little too much like calling Raisin the Tony Award winning Best Musical of 1973-74. I'd stand behind both statements, but neither means the show in question is especially good. However, when you consider the aggressively bad evenings of noise and nonsense Broadway audiences have sat through thus far this cycle, a show that just lays there fairly lifeless in hopes that its star can figure out some way to make it work comes off as refreshingly merciful.
Perhaps the best way to explain what's happening at the Virginia Theatre these days is to have you envision "a very special episode" of the old 80's sitcom, The Facts of Life. Remember that one? Charlotte Rae starring as Mrs. Garrett, a boarding school house mother supervising four conveniently diverse teen girls. Perhaps somewhere in the archival vaults of NBC lies a tattered unused teleplay, no doubt with the words "burn this" written across the cover in bold black marker, for an hour-long episode where the kids are studying Louisa May Alcott's classic novel. Jo, the tough one, is reaching to get a copy of the book from the library's top shelf, but the thick volume falls and conks her on the noggin, knocking her into dreamland where she imagines herself as Jo March, the spirited and independent young heroine from Concord who dreams of becoming a famous writer of "blood and guts" potboiler stories while daddy is out fighting the Civil War. Her sitcom school chums play her three sisters (Fans of the TV show would be better off assigning those roles than I.) and Mrs. Garrett, of course, appears as their lovable mother, Marmee. The episode manages to get most of the plot covered between commercial breaks and the inevitable final scene where Jo wakes up, but there's certainly no time to develop empathy or establish any kind of in-depth characterization.
Call me crazy but I think even the target audience of this production, families with young and/or teenage girls, would expect a little more substance from a Broadway musical than what you'd find in a 1980's sitcom special. And although Alcott's Little Women certainly has the makings of a smashing family musical with honest sentiment and encouraging messages, you'll find none of that here. The fatal flaw seems to be that the production was conceived as a star vehicle for Sutton Foster. Now naturally, the actress playing Jo will be the main focus of any adaptation. The author based the character on herself and she serves as a fine role model for young girls. But Allan Knee's book and Susan H. Schulman's direction are both so concentrated on pushing Ms. Foster front and center that the other actresses sharing the title roles are reduced to playing "the girlish one", "the selfish one" and "the other one". (For the record, that's Jenny Powers as Meg, Amy McAlexander as Amy and Megan McGinnis as Beth.) Plot and character development, when not involving Jo, is reduced to lines like, "I hope I can be sweet, like you" and "You're a mother now! Twins -- I can't believe it!"
But then, being the center of attention in this show isn't necessarily a good thing. For all of Act I it seems Schulman is trying to pull a performance out of Foster more suited to a young Carol Burnett, utilizing sketch comedy shtick like the sudden lowering of her voice to create a punch line and awkward attempts at femininity. It's out of place and not funny. A framing device has Jo describing her stories in musical scenes that open both acts, with the rest of the cast acting out her narration as she enthusiastically mouths the words along with them. It's an old chestnut of a routine that falls flat because Schulman's staging is so unfocused that you barely notice Foster's contribution.
Several attempts to pull at your heartstrings are made in Act II, where romantic relationships, tragic loss and family love are dealt with a bit more seriously. Unfortunately, because the characters have been so underwritten to that point, these scenes carry no emotional weight. Oh, sure -- someone who loves the novel may be moved by seeing a favorite moment dramatized, but a musical must stand on its own and the authors have given us no reason to care about anyone on stage.
Except for Maureen McGovern. Oh no, not Marmee -- the character she plays, but McGovern herself. As with the other actors whose names don't rhyme with "oster", she doesn't get much to work with, but being a star of some magnitude she gets one power ballad per act. Neither song makes much of an impression, but McGovern herself, whenever singing, has a wondrously piercing, dramatic voice that sucks every bit of an audience's attention directly to her. She reaches some positively thrilling heights in her Act II solo, "Days of Plenty", with barely any help from the song itself.
Indeed, this is perhaps the least memorable score in recent memory. (Did I just write that?) This is not necessarily a bad thing, because many horrible scores are annoyingly memorable, but Jason Howland's music is such a bland mixture of contemporary Broadway drama, cuteness, anthems and one extremely out of place rock-based tune for Danny Gurwin as Laurie, that I found myself forgetting some of them as they were being sung. During Ms. McGovern's aforementioned "Days of Plenty" I kept imagining how nice it would be to hear her singing "Night and Day" at the Oak Room. However, Kim Scharnberg does manage to pull off some lovely orchestrations with a 12-piece orchestra, with nary a synthesizer among them.
Mindi Dickstein's lyrics consist mostly of basic rhymes and Hallmark sentiment about love, family, hopes, dreams and the like. A rhyme using the homonym "conquered" and "Concord" seemed a little questionable to me at first, but then I was advised that Alcott used the same pairing in one of her poems, so kudos to Dickstein for that touch of authenticity.
Foster's Act I center stage closer, a belted solo called "Astonishing" might as well be subtitled "Defying Subtlety" with its predictable key changes and lines like "I may be small but I've got giant plans." No doubt it will become a popular audition song for high school belters who can't riff. And if parents are pleased with the song's message that instead of settling for marrying well and being someone's arm candy a young girl can accomplish great things if she puts her mind to it and isn't afraid to be different, they can go to the lobby and buy their daughter a form-fitting baby-tee with the word "astonishing" written across the chest.
David Yazbek... Jeffrey Lane... Jack O'Brien... Please help us. We need you now more than ever.
Photos by Paul Kolnick: Top: (l-r) Jenny Powers and Jim Weitzer
Center: (l-r) Maureen McGovern and Sutton Foster
Bottom: (l-r) Megan McGinnis, Amy McAlexander, Jenny Powers, Maureen McGovern and Sutton Foster