Little Women, York Theatre, Seymour Centre, November 5-December 7, 2008; (02) 9351 7940 or http://secure.seymourboxoffice.com.au
LOUISA May Alcott’s classic novel of Civil War America, Little Women has never been out of print, has been filmed umpteen times (most recently by Gillian Armstrong) and it’s surprising that it took so long to reach the stage as a musical. It’s a natural, with four spirited girls who become women over the course of the action with as many highs and lows as you could wish for along the way. The classic novel has been turned into classic Broadway with book, music and lyrics by Allan Knee, Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein, and given a rousing production by Kookaburra under the expert direction of Stuart Maunder.
Other principals involved in the production are also top of the range: Judi Connelli is predictably splendid as the irascible rich relative, Aunt March, and channels her Irish ancestors in a cameo turn as a New York boarding house landlady.
Trisha Noble is perfect as the girls’ mother, known – ickily – as Marmee (they don’t call their beloved absent father Parpee). Noble is elegantly maternal and avoids the puddles of cloying syrup that would undoubtedly have charmed Broadway audiences.
The show remains faithful to the book in its language and characters as the nice middle class girls grapple with genteel poverty, their fear of the war – far away from Concord, Massachusetts but in which Rev March is embroiled and could be killed. (For another view of this, see Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer prize-winning March.) Meanwhile, however, they spend their time grumbling about tatty bonnets and gloves, girlish pranks, helping their saintly mother in her neighbourly good works and – for Jo, the protagonists and Alcott’s alter ego – dreaming up ever more extravagant melodramas for the entertainment of her sisters.
Jo is crucial to the mix and Kate Maree Hoolihan is good in the role. She frowns, stomps about and mugs ferociously as the sister who will not succumb to the ladylike requirements of gowns, polite manners and obsequious behaviour towards Aunt March (even when a trip to Europe is dangled in front of her nose).
Unluckily, Octavia Barron Martin is also in the cast, as elder sister Meg. Barron Martin is that rare creature, a fabulous, intelligent actress who can really sing, or looking at it another way, a terrific singer who is a marvelous actress. She is excellent but wasted as the self consciously gracious Meg, whereas I would put money on her having the ability as an actress to make Jo the deeply considered, three-dimensional girl-woman and towering figure she needs to be to really lift this show off the ground. And she could deal with the foghorn-big finish ballads too (where is Jan van der Stool when you need her?) with some subtlety. As an aside, she even looks like the young Louisa May Alcott! (See photo reproduced here.)
Casting is a curious dice roll, however, and there you are. Another bit of weird casting that does work, against the odds, is handsome, young Hayden Tee as grumpy, older German professor Bhaer. He makes a good fist of a sauerkraut-laden Charman ecksent and being a fusty-dusty academic who wouldn’t know what it feels like to fall in love unless he sat on the sharp end of it.
The younger sisters, sweet, doomed Beth and pouty, spoilt brat Amy are beautifully brought to life by Jodie Harris as everybody’s favourite invalid and debutante Erica Lovell – a talent to watch out for in future as the selfish but ultimately redeemed clothes horse. Laurie Laurence, the poor little rich boy next-door neighbour is given oodles of charm and cute by Stephen May, but too much to make him plausible in his relationship with Jo.