Little Problem

Without the pipes of Maureen McGovern, Little Women would shrink from sight.

Little Women: The Broadway Musical Palace Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue Through May 21, 216-241-6000
There are certain rites of passage every girl must experience before she is grown. But in addition to dealing with acne, insecurity, intense friendships, raging infatuations, and peer-group infighting, there are also calm islands of reflection to which a young female can escape to find insights into her essence and place in the world. For many over the past 140 years, Louisa May Alcott's timeless novel Little Women has provided a trove of small epiphanies, along with a role model or two, helping girls navigate the challenging path to womanhood.

Given the book's traditional popularity, it's surprising that so much time passed before Little Women: The Broadway Musical hit the stage. This capsule version, which opened last year in New York, is more like a SparkNotes distillation of the CliffNotes condensation of the novel. The well-known characters resonate, if you keep filling in the backstory with your own memory of the book. But if you're ignorant of Alcott's masterpiece, you may wonder what all the fuss is about.

Although the exceptional pop singer Maureen McGovern is billed above the title in this production, her role as Marmee, the wise and supportive mother to her four daughters, is disappointingly slim. Still, her two solos stand out, turning Jason Howland's facile score and Mindi Dickstein's numbingly ordinary lyrics into something approaching musical genius. Possessing a voice with more depth and shading than a Rembrandt painting, McGovern makes time stand still in the wistful "Here Alone," when she laments the fact that her husband is off fighting in the Civil War. And her act two rendition of "Days of Plenty" is a vocal gem, although the inane words ("I hoped I'd never know heartbreak/How I wish I could change the way things went") might trigger a gag reflex if someone else were crooning them.

In the key role of Jo, the rebellious tomboy and author modeled after Alcott herself, Susan Spencer sparks numerous laughs as she resists the traditional female role of the time in order to pursue her muse. But Spencer's interpretation of Jo's free spirit seems a bit too liberated for the 1860s; it would have more impact if we could sense the courage and determination it took to resist the era's expectations.

Of course, that's asking a lot from a show in which all the characterizations have the subtlety of one-minute caricatures sketched by Cedar Point sidewalk artists. Jo's three sisters -- Meg, Beth, and Amy -- are compelled to broadcast their personas in capsule form (respectively romantic, tragic, and upwardly mobile) without the nuances that make stage roles come to life.

One element of this production that does work superbly, however, is Derek McLane's set, which smoothly handles the transitions from Jo's "operatic tragedies" to the scenes in the March household. The impressionistic backdrops, both morose and cheerful, are gorgeous and have all the subtlety lacking in the script. Even so, two songs by the amazing McGovern come close to making it all worthwhile.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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