Little Women has been a favorite story since I first saw the Winona Ryder film adaptation in theaters in 1994. I’ve since read the novel by Louisa May Alcott and seen various other screen adaptations, but this was my first experience of it on the stage. It’s a mixed bag of an adaptation, much of it works well, but when it falls short, it’s in fairly significant ways. But, if you are a fan as I am of Alcott’s timeless story of the four March sisters and the characters that orbit them, you’ll have a very enjoyable evening out.
Little Women the Broadway Musical tells the story of the March family of Concord Massachusetts during and following the civil war. The father is away at war and Marmee March is raising her four daughters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The story focuses on Jo as we’ll learn she is the one who has written down the story of her and her sisters. Most of the play is told in a flashback as it opens after the war is over and Jo has moved to New York City to become a writer. She is having a conversation with her friend Professor Bhaer and reads him one of her “blood and cuts” stories which transitions nicely into the past where Jo and her sisters prepare to act out her latest opus. Jo is the passionate nonconformist writer in the family. Meg the romantic but also down to earth sister. Amy the baby and brat of the family. Beth the timid and selfless daughter. They are befriended by Laurie, the grandson of the wealthy old curmudgeon across the street. From that, friendship flourishes other relationships that enrich the story; Laurie’s Tutor John Brooke and his Grandfather also become involved with the family. The heart of the story is the relationships between the sisters, their mother Marmee, and the connections and bonds that form with those around them.
The book for the musical by Allan Knee hits most of the major plot points of the novel. But the whole thing feels like the Cliff Notes version. If you were not familiar with the story I’d wonder if you would really understand everything thing that happens. None of the relationships are given the time to develop. For instance, the relationship between Laurie’s Grandfather and Beth. If you know the story you can extrapolate from the one scene they are given. If not, Well then it seems like a throwaway scene that’s an excuse for a fun song. Towards the end there is a song between Beth and Jo at the seaside that tells us about their special bond, the problem is that special bond is being told to us at the end of the play, when it should have been shown to us throughout the play. The most grievous error in judgment comes in the portrayal of Beth. In the novel, and other adaptations, Beth is timid and shy, she is a homebody but has a heart of gold who would give the food off her table or even her life to those less fortunate than herself. There is nothing of that character here. She is vibrant and outgoing there is nothing about the character in this version that rings true to its source. It’s hard to say if the actor Lauren Hugh who plays Beth, made these choices or if she was directed to this interpretation. I tend to think it’s the latter as the script seems to sidestep the clues to the character that we would normally see. What makes the four sisters so enduring is they are all unique and fully formed characters. Each is an individual but in this version, Beth and Meg are almost interchangeable. Beth is the most poignant characters in the entire novel, but here to achieve that all we are left with is her fate, a plot point rather than a character. That is the major flaw with this bullet point adaptation, none of the characters have room to grow and change. The other disappointment character wise is Amy played by Shinah Hey. In Act I, she’s a brat and we kind of dislike her as the annoyingly little sister she is playing. That’s how we are supposed to feel about her. In Act II, she’s older but still a silly girl, hasn’t really matured at all, and that is not how we are supposed to feel about her. These are not really performance issues, this is script and direction.
One thing I’ve come to expect from the Artistry is superb music. Little Women the Broadway Musical is no exception. The orchestra under the musical direction of Anita Ruth was, as always, impeccable. The songs music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein were fun right from the start. The first number “An Operatic Tragedy” is an acting out of one of Jo’s stories. It’s full of humor and creativity and was a great start to the show. I enjoyed many of the songs and the cast performed them all beautifully. Standouts in the vocal department are hard to single out as they all were top notch. Bradley Johnson as Laurie and Madeline Trumble as Jo were particularly strong. Acting wise I particularly like the performances of Angela Timberman as Aunt March and Dwight Xaveir Leslie as Professor Bhaer. Neither had as much stage time as I would have liked, but both made use of every minute they got. Lastly, the Set Design by Leazah Behrens along with the lighting design by Mike Grogan worked beautifully together to create at least seven distinct locations during the course of the show. Minimal but very effective.
Little Women the Broadway Musical runs through November 28th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://artistrymn.org/2022-season.