It shouldn’t take a death to breathe life into Little Women: The Musical.
Based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1869 semi-autobiographical novel, this musical version follows the adventures of March sisters, Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy. Episodic in nature, while book writer Allan Knee takes some liberties with Alcott’s original story, he touches on the novel’s major plot points.
Surprisingly, at nearly three hours (with intermission), Knee still only manages to skim along the surface of Alcott’s characters. The resulting stereotypes (brash Jo, romantic Meg, pretentious Amy, and kind-hearted Beth) are tough to invest in.
Making it more difficult to find the necessary emotional connection is director Lalainia Lindbjerg Strelau’s decision to play much of the show as sweet. Apart from Beth’s death – played with a subtle grace by Jennifer Gillis – there is little variation here. While it has a certain charm, it is also boring.
The lip service paid to the grittiness of the Civil War era, and the relative poverty of the March family feels false, and never allows the actors an opportunity to mine any depth. One can’t help but wish the “blood and guts” of Jo’s stories were explored in the real-world of the March clan, rather than just part of the fantasy sequences.
As a showcase for young female vocal talent, Little Women does hit its mark. Even as Jason Howland’s music and Mindi Dickstein’s lyrics are largely generic, the four women playing the March sisters – Michelle Creber, Julia MacLean, Jenifer Gillis, and Ranae Miller – all have terrific voices. Creber and MacLean are particularly good here, and when the quartet comes together it is a glorious sound. Chris Adams and Erik Gow are highlights among the men.
The acting, however, is variable. As Marmee, Monique Creber’s vocals save her from what was largely a flat performance. And while Stephen Aberle goes for loud, Colleen Winton as Aunt March owned the stage each time she appeared.
Director Strelau is not helped by Todd Ablett’s main set design which is set so far upstage it only adds to our disconnection with the characters. Taking a cue from the attic set or Jo’s New York boarding house, she would have been better served by eliminating the painted backdrop and bringing us closer to the action.
The surprisingly large nine-piece orchestra, under the leadership of Michael Creber, easily handles Howland’s music. It was a bit odd though to hear Creber counting in his orchestra on a few occasions.
Long ahead of her time, with a central premise of female empowerment and independence, it is easy to see why Alcott’s story continues to resonate with young women. If only this musical version added more to help further transcend its place in history.
Little Women: The Musical with music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and book by Allan Knee. Based on the novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Directed by Lalainia Lindbjerg Strelau. A Kay Meek co-presentation with Creber Productions and Bring on Tomorrow Co. On stage at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver until December 30. Visit https://bringontomorrowco.com for tickets and information.
(Editor’s note: this review was edited to correct the actor names playing the March sisters)