When, after years of poverty, Louisa May Alcott had a best seller at 36 with Little Women, she exulted, “Paid up all the debts—thank the Lord—now I can die in peace.” Had she seen the musical derived from it by Allan Knee (book), Jason Howland (music), and Mindi Dickstein (lyrics), she might instead have died of shame. True, it was originally commissioned by a children’s theater, where, at the utmost, it belongs; yet would even a sophisticated teenager settle for this, to say nothing of his or her intelligent parent?
It’s not the sentimentality: The 1933 movie version turned into a condign classic, though, admittedly, a musical comedy is something else again. Jason Howland hasn’t come up with much that resembles a tune, which made me almost sorrier for him than for my shortchanged self. A conscious or unconscious disciple of Frank Wildhorn, he is to music what a kazoo is to a symphony orchestra. As for the Dickstein lyrics, they may give mediocrity a bad name, trudging at best to “We could live a million dreams, / But only if we dare. / We could go to such extremes. / There’s so much we could share. / We’ll circle the world / Doing all we ever dreamed of,” and so sweatily on. With all those dreams kicking around, someone must have dreamed this could make a valid Broadway musical. Dream again, pal.
Alan Knee’s book is not so much the novel boiled down as the CliffsNotes stretched thin; a skeleton may be here, but where is the flesh? Dutifully but routinely directed by Susan H. Shulman, it may be the first clunky set by the gifted designer Derek McLane. The show doesn’t lend itself to much dance, but Michael Lichtefeld has choreographed it like a borrower whose credit has run out. Of the four March girls, one—Sutton Foster as Jo—does indeed march; the others merely drag their feet. Jenny Powers’s Meg verges on bearable; Megan McGinnis, a goofy Beth, and Amy McAlexander, who must have been cast as Amy merely on her name, are hopeless. Sisterhood has never been as unbeautiful. Foster, a talented singing actress, aware of the surrounding vacuum, overcompensates at times. As Marmee, Maureen McGovern sings beautifully, but is histrionically challenged. The others are either miscast or feeble, some even managing both. Catherine Zuber and Kenneth Posner do dependably, but no one ever emerged from a musical humming the costumes and lighting. Little Women takes place in the 1860s, yet the show doesn’t even succeed in setting back the musical 140 years; a hundred is the best it can do.