Color me embarrassed. For years, I assumed the book Little Women was not only written by the same author as Little House On the Prairie, but was also part of that long-winded franchise of life on the Great Plains. While I admit that is a critical blind spot for a literate person, there are two main contributors to my ignorance: Both books were written for girls, and neither had orcs, magicians or loincloth-decked men traipsing through the African jungle. They weren't exactly on this particular adolescent's radar screen.
So imagine my surprise after watching Little Women: The Broadway Musical and realizing Louisa May Alcott wasn't Laura Ingalls Wilder, that Civil War-era Massachusetts wasn't late-19th-century Kansas, and that neither tale is about midgets or dwarves. That lack of familiarity meant these eyes and ears showed up at this Chance Theater production with no emotional connection to a book read as a young person, thus no preconceived notions—other than the aforementioned dumb-ass ones. And I can honestly say that my tabula rasa was inscribed with a deep appreciation for Alcott's story of four distinct sisters set against the backdrop of America's worst nightmare. I watched with a sock in my throat as the fate of Beth wound to its sad conclusion. I admired the character of Jo, whose fiery independence must have scandalized readers when the book was published shortly after the Civil War.
Too bad it wasn't just a staged reading; while it's an engrossing story, it's a dud of a musical. Jason Howland's score (Mindi Dickstein wrote the lyrics) is one of those cloying, saccharine-infused vehicles in which most of the singing stems from the upper vocal register. Everything is high-pitched and warbly, and most of the songs sound so similar that, hours after seeing it, I could only remember one—and that was due more to performance and dramatic placement (if you know the story, it's Beth's critical scene).
Little women at the Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma, Anaheim, (714) 777-3033; www.chancetheater.com. Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3
And though the performances are polished and Allan Knee's spoken words are effective, when the music in a musical is as annoying as a swarm of butterflies approaching your car while driving down a country road—cute at first, but cringe-inducing when their blood splatters across your windshield—there's a major issue. As is the length: two hours and 30 minutes that, in the ponderous first act, feels like it. But as with its four main characters, the play grows up in the second act. Things get serious and dramatic, and if you can get past the forgettable music, it's a moving ride.
It's easy to see why this is called Little Women. In the first act, the four sisters are adolescents and teens. Their father is absent, fighting in the war, and they struggle to survive with little money or creature comforts. Though they are girls, with all the inherent giddiness and pettiness, they're forced to grow up, in certain ways, long before they're ready and realize all they really have is one another. By the time it ends, they are five years older, literally little women, each experiencing a life-changing event that has propelled them into adulthood—or at least close to it—each embarking on a path less about the bond between sisters than it is about their own lives.
The key character is Jo (a strong and talented Erika C. Miller). A brash tomboy who dreams of literary success, she spurns the notion of prescribed roles such as wife or mother. She hungers for a life she creates herself and is adamant about it. It's easy to view her, in the aftermath of the devastation of the American Civil War, as symbolizing the sea change in American feminism that so greatly impacted the Progressive Era. The fact she was created some 20 years before that movement crystallized is indicative of Alcott's prescience.
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The other sisters, while not as memorable as Jo, are still clearly defined. Beth (an exquisite rendering by Tasha Tormey) is Jo's favorite, the kind of musically inclined beatific kid whom all adore and who, naturally, is dealt the cruelest hand. Amy (played in this production by a cute and scampering Cori McKay in the first act and Kelsey Jones in the second), the youngest, is the snottiest and most vain. Meg (a solid Laura M. Hathaway) is the most romantic, but also the most practical, not concerned with art or status as much as settling into a traditional role.
The supporting characters, ranging from various love interests to female relatives, season the story, but director Casey Long knows this tale is about the four sisters and keeps the focus on them. That makes for an emotionally compelling story of strength and solidarity meshed with the conflict between familial responsibility and individual expression. Now exposed to it on the stage, I wouldn't mind reading the book. But I can't wait to forget the musical.
This review appeared in print as "Little Women In the Hills: The song-and-dance version of Louisa May Alcott's classic makes you want to read the original instead."