Long, long before mega-musical Wicked, there was an American novel that empowered young girls to be the best they could be. Anyone remember Louisa May Alcott and best-seller Little Women (1868)?
Alcott's warm slice of Americana was a definite precursor to feminism. Tomboy Jo wants a career, and, by “Christopher Columbus,” she gets it! One of America's classic novels, Women is fresh, young, daring. Meant for young readers, it was an instant success upon publication and has never gone out of print. Who can resist the March family saga set during the darkest days of the Civil War? Dad's off to war, and stalwart mom Marmee raises their four daughters in genteel poverty in Concord, Massachusetts. Through the tribulations and glories of everyday life, the young women grow into the eponymous women of the title.
Of all adaptations of this famous book, the most memorable remains the David O. Selznick/George Cukor classic movie (RKO, 1933), a Currier and Ives lithograph starring Katherine Hepburn as irrepressible Jo. Mark Adamo composed a spiky chamber opera that premiered at Houston Grand Opera (1998), but no one's placed the March family on Broadway until the trio of Jason Howland (music), Mindi Dickstein (lyrics) and Allan Knee (book).
As a faithful rendition of Alcott, the musical drips with homage, hitting the book's highlights while it concentrates on Jo's journey. Unfortunately, this very long work suffers much the same fate as any recent show, it all sounds like every other recent musical. Certifiably tuneful, the songs run the gamut from Frank Wildhorn pastiche to Stephen Schwartz power ballads. Jo's Act I finale, “Astonishing,” could slip seamlessly into Schwartz's Wicked without missing a beat. There's no individuality to any of it. This is generic song writing, fit for any show. “Days of Plenty,” Mom's anthem, sounds just like “The Fire Within Me,” Jo's anthem, even when performed with such heartfelt belt by the fine cast. The skimpy orchestrations used at A.D. Players don't help, making the show sound like a rehearsal.
Director Joey Watkins keeps things moving at a brisk clip, using sliding panels on overhead rails to facilitate the numerous scene changes, but the book plods nonetheless. Two treatments of Jo's blood and guts “operatic tragedy” are two too many. What does give the musical needed lift is the very real interaction between the performers. The four sisters seem like actual sisters, and the supporting characters are drawn with compelling ease.
Shanae'a Moore makes a spitfire Jo. Setting off sparks, much as she did in Classical Theatre's recent A Doll's House, she's a bundle of energy, even when tempered by being placed way upstage in the attic set which removes some of her power by putting her far away from us. We need her front and center.
Her lively family includes Haley Landers, as puffed up spoiled Amy; Amanda Parker, as romantic lovely Meg; Connor Lyon, as wispy sweet Beth; and Shondra Marie, as stalwart loving Marmee. Eric Domuret, as Prof. Bhaer, bachelor pedant who falls hard for Jo's lifeforce, limns the older man with rich baritone, and his surprising revelation that he misses his sparring partner, “How I Am,” is sung as a robust mini aria. Braden Hunt, always a bright stage presence, lets Laurie's natural charm bloom; Ric Hodgin, as flinty neighbor Mr. Laurence, shows us his hard heart melting away under the March charm onslaught. Patti Lozano, as snooty Aunt March, plays her in full battleship mode, and her futile attempts at making a lady out of her wayward niece, “Could You,” is a sprightly Sondheim-esque parody. William Burke, as young swain John Brooke in love with Meg, is appropriately dashing, and he too boasts a ringing voice in his ardent love declaration “More Than I Am.”
Along with the slick staging, Mark Lewis's inventive sets, and Jim Elliot's atmospheric lighting, there's the stunning display of Donna Southern Schmidt's opulently detailed Victorian costuming. Such swirling silk, such delectable homespun, such splendid mutton sleeves, such well-cut men's jackets. Whenever the show bogs down, just concentrate on the moire patterns created by the play of light on those voluminous hoop skirts. It's like a kaleidoscope. Jo's sprig-patterned outfit she wears on Amy's wedding day is a real beaut, but only one among so many design pleasures.
In need of judicious cutting, Little Women still has power in it. Perhaps the most affecting number is Jo and Amy's duet on the beach, “Some Things Are Meant To Be.” Jo rigs a kite for Amy and sets it flying offstage. The simplicity of the image – two young women, one destined to die, singing sweetly of their abiding sisterly love while the sound of the seashore is heard in the background – is the essence of Alcott. The song is redolent with nostalgia, regret, and eternal hope. Life goes on, so make the best out of it you possibly can. That message is fairly generic, too, but it's deeply real at A.D. Players.
Little Women continues through July 10 at A.D. Players, 2710 W. Alabama. For more information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $40.