The hardworking cast includes (l-r) Samantha Bock, Kaitlin Olsen, Kate Ewings, Wendy Jones Hill and Belle Stein.
In terms of book and score, if I were to rank the many Broadway musicals I've seen, Little Women: The Musical would be at the very bottom of my list. The script reads like randomly assembled pages from the CliffsNotes version of Little Women, muddying Louisa May Alcott's story of four sisters growing up during the Civil War. The score is bland and completely forgettable -- you'll never leave the theater humming any of these tunes, though the ridiculously lame lyrics will linger in your head. Inane lines like "love could be like a small umbrella in the rain" and "sometimes when you yearn, you burn the air" may haunt you for days.
With material this bad, Children's Theater of Madison and Four Seasons Theatre had a challenge in front of them as they co-produced Little Women as the opener for both of their seasons. To the credit of a hardworking cast and crew, they make the best of it, resulting in a show that's good enough to periodically shine through the constraints of a crummy script and score.
From the detail of the period costumes to the efforts of a live orchestra, it is evident that a lot of work went into the show. The actors are a talented, devoted bunch. Many of the supporting roles are filled by enthusiastic young actors -- still in high school or middle school -- who bring a fun energy to the stage as singing hags and trolls, characters from Jo's stories. Unfortunately, it was visible throughout opening night's show in Overture Center's Playhouse just how hard everyone was working -- overdone performances by the principal actors left me shifting in my seat, wishing for less melodrama.
Kaitlin Elizabeth Olsen's performance as Jo March is better suited for a larger venue. In the confines of the cozy Playhouse, Olsen's Jo comes across more as caricature than character. In Alcott's Little Women, Jo March is a complicated figure who's serious about living up to no one's expectations except her own. Jo's fierce independence is accompanied by a sort of loneliness, making her the bittersweet heroine with whom women have identified for generations. This loneliness is largely neglected here, or, perhaps, drowned in too much spunkiness.
The other March girls are played with more subtlety, which fits better with the show's scale. Especially notable is Samantha Mae Bock as Beth. Bock, a junior at Madison West, resists the temptation to play to the stereotype of Beth as overly sweet and fragile. Bock's Beth is sweet, but she's also the bravest of the March sisters -- facing life's challenges and her own death with calm assuredness. A delightful scene finds Beth shyly singing and playing piano for Mr. Laurence (Donavon Armbruster), winning the hearts of both the grumpy old man and the audience with every note.
On opening night, the majority of the audience let the flaws of Little Women's script and score fade away and, instead, focused on the dedication and talent of all involved, offering a standing ovation at the show's close. Me, I had a harder time getting past the sappy lines and boring tunes. Instead, I left the theater looking forward to the rest of Four Season's and CTM's seasons. Tried-and-true classics like A Christmas Carol and Fiddler on the Roof are sure to give local talent a better chance to show what they can do.