Revisiting a family classic with Little Women at the Players Theatre.
By Kay Kipling
Whenever you produce a literary classic for the stage, you run the risk of not meeting the expectations of the loyal reader. And with such a beloved piece as Little Women, which so many of us remember from frequent perusals as children, that’s especially true.
So this musical adaptation of Little Women, now onstage at the Players Theatre, may not (and could not) possibly meet all of those expectations, either in the way that we remember the story or how we picture the characters. That said, director Carole Kleinberg is fortunate to have a cast of singers with mostly fine voices, and there is a lot of spirit and energy to this production.
Back, Jennifer K. Baker and Leah Page; front, Lauren Smith, Nancy Apatow and Libby Fleming in the Players’ Little Women.
This version (with book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein) tends to focus more initially on the writing efforts of Jo (Jennifer K. Baker), the Louisa May Alcott stand-in from whose point of view we see things. When the show opens, we do not immediately meet the March clan; rather, we have Jo already in New York, living at a boardinghouse where she argues with Professor Bhaer (Richard Russell) and struggles to get her “blood-and-guts” stories published. Accordingly, we also see brief re-enactments of those stories, filled with lots of hokum about heroes, villains and damsels in distress.
But the real heart of Little Women is the story of the March family, and the play is better when it gradually gets us to know them and their circumstances. While Baker may not look like your childhood vision of Jo, she has a strong voice and good delivery and plays her role with passion. She’s joined by sisters Meg (Leah Page, who sings very prettily on her romantic duet with her suitor, the tutor John Brooke), Beth (Libby Fleming, touching in her piano scene with the grumpy Mr. Laurence and again later on when she bids her sister Jo farewell), and Amy (Lauren Smith, who must appear rather bratty in her early scenes and later grows up to become a match for the Marches’ longtime friend, Laurie, endearingly played by Colin Cook). Then of course there’s Marmee (Nancy Apatow), the calm center of the family, who nevertheless reveals her loneliness while her husband is away during the Civil War.
The voices of the leads often soar, but not every song they have to work with here is a gem. And while the action of Jo’s stories is staged in lively fashion by director Kleinberg (who’s aided throughout by the sprightly choreography of Jim Hoskins), they really tend to detract from our emotional involvement with the March women. And the prolonged absence of Mr. March seems rather odd here—shouldn’t he be back from the war sooner than he is?
Act II has, perhaps, more good moments than Act I, including a nicely rendered song by Russell (How I Am) as he ponders his new feelings for Jo, and the closing duet between him and Baker (Small Umbrella in the Rain), one of the few songs that seems it could have a life of its own. Ultimately, the strengths of the cast and the original material make up for the weaknesses in the script and score.
Little Women runs through Dec. 21; call 365-2494 or go to theplayers.org for ticket info.