Book: Allan Knee
Music: Jason Howland
Lyrics: Mindi Dickstein
Director: Bronagh Lagan
Interest in Louisa May Alcott’s 1868/9 two volume semi-autobiographical novels, Little Women, was revived by a highly acclaimed 2019 film adaptation. Its mix of comedy, tragedy, romance and nostalgia clearly remains potent today and it would seem that these could be the perfect ingredients for it to follow the paths of other 19th Century literary works to become a successful musical.
Set in New England at a time when the American Civil War is raging far to the south, Alcott’s books tell the coming of age stories of the four March sisters who live with their impoverished mother while their father is away serving in the Union army. There is a lot for writer Allan Knee to condense into 260 minutes (including interval), but he does a fine job in jettisoning subsidiary characters and scenes, while retaining the full flavour of the original.
The most striking feature of director Bronagh Lagan’s heartwarming production is the impeccable casting. Anyone familiar with the novels is likely to recognise all of the characters as soon as they appear on stage, dressed in splendid period costumes, designed by Nik Corrall. Lydia White gives a thrilling star performance as second oldest sister Jo, a strong-willed aspiring writer, assumed to be based on Alcott herself. Jo resolves never to marry and rejects the advances of the awkward, over-eager neighbour Laurie (Sev Keoshgerian showing deft comic touches), while her older sister, Meg (Hana Ichijo), sets herself on a course towards marital bliss with Laurie’s tutor, John (Lejaun Sheppard).
The quartet is completed by musically talented Beth (Anastasia Martin) and the precocious, spiteful Amy (a deliciously nasty Mary Moore). Savannah Stevenson, with the sweetest soprano voice in the company, is the girls’ loving “Marmee” and, in memorable cameo roles, Bernadine Pritchett is the domineering Aunt March, Brian Protheroe is the kindly rich neighbour, Mr Lawrence and Ryan Bennett is the timid New York Professor who could have a chance of winning Jo’s hand.
Sadly, the songs with music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, are a big disappointment, most of them distinguished only by their consistent mediocrity. It feels as if all the work in developing the characters and propelling the story is done by the book writer and the performers, with the songs contributing very little. There is some improvement in the later stages and the final duet between Jo and the Professor, Small Umbrella in the Rain, is actually rather charming, but still there is nothing likely to linger in the head even for as long as it takes to reach the theatre’s exit door.
The production succeeds well as a dramatisation of Alcott’s novels and the transformation into a musical takes little away from that success; however, neither does it add very much. If the producers aim to take the show beyond this 200-seat venue and expand it, they will need to find some songs that are capable of making a stronger impact.
Runs until 19 December 2021