- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

The March sisters have taken up residence at the Kennedy Center this summer in an endearing, if slight, musical version of the novel “Little Women,” and they are the antithesis of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and the other real-life Bratz Dolls dominating today’s youth culture.

The four siblings from Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic — Jo (Kate Fisher), Meg (Renee Brna), Beth (Autumn Hurlbert) and Amy (Gwen Hollander) — do not connive to hog the spotlight, dominate the red carpet, sleep with Greek shipping heirs or starve themselves to translucent thinness. Instead, they strive for closeness, to be kind to one another, to help each other realize their hopes and dreams any way they can.

We love the March sisters not because of their sniping, clever put-downs, or back-stabbing (although there is the incident of Amy burning Jo’s short story out of jealousy), but because of their resourcefulness and spirit, the joy they take in being together, and their undying loyalty and devotion to one another and their mother, Marmee (Maureen McGovern).

“Little Women” shows a family in Civil War America that may be short on luxuries, but are long on inventiveness and affection. Directed by Susan Schulman, the musical “Little Women” vibrantly captures the camaraderie of the March girls, as well as the novel’s somber aspects — the father’s prolonged absence from the household in his duties as army chaplain, Beth’s sickness and death, the humbling effects of being a poor relation and the scant roles for women in society other than wife and mother.

Derek McLane’s set reveals the rich inner life of the March family in backdrops that look like Winslow Homer landscapes, and their outer existence is suggested by threadbare furniture and two rickety staircases flanking the stage. Catherine Zuber’s costumes reinforce this division, with the Marches clad in patched and practical work clothes, while the affluent characters wear frocks and furbelows that make them look like overdecorated wedding cakes.

Like the novel, the musical is dominated by Jo, the aspiring novelist and writer who wants more out of life than domestic drudgery. As the powerful, yearning Act 1 closing number attests, Jo wants to be “Astonishing.” Her attempts to make her mark on the world and resist romance form the gist of “Little Women,” and although we admire her indomitable spirit, there is a certain swoony satisfaction to Jo finding love with an intellectual equal, the understanding German teacher, Professor Bhaer (Andrew Varela).

Miss Fisher’s breathless spunk and careless beauty recall Winona Ryder’s Jo in the 1994 movie, but she also has an agile singing voice and a quickness to her step that suits both the character and Michael Lichtefeld’s choreography. Mr. Varela makes an ideal Professor Bhaer — steady where Jo is flighty, reasonable where she is florid. But Mr. Varela gives us glints of humor and emotion in the professor that hint at passions that could match those of his future wife.

The interpretation of Laurie (Stephen Patterson), Jo’s best friend and spurned love, could be problematic for those who think of him as mild-mannered. Here, he vibrates with nervous boisterousness and favors the jazz hands and boffo delivery of a Broadway ham. Miss Hollander’s Amy is a calculating, brittle porcelain doll, spoiled and annoying. On the other hand, you can see why Jo favored Beth in Miss Hurlbert’s graceful and gently radiant portrayal (their duet, “Some Things Are Meant to Be,” is a heartbreaking highlight), and there is unsullied loveliness to Miss Brna’s simple Meg.

The show’s star is Miss McGovern, and her voice is a marvel — husky and resonant, yet capable of hitting the high notes will bell-like clarity. However, she tends to intone her spoken lines like a forbidding schoolmarm teaching elocution.

The most dismaying aspect of “Little Women” is the music, which is mainly insipid. There is only a smattering of decent songs in the show, and even these fade from memory before you reach the parking lot. Where the novel is warm and epic, the musical “Little Women” seems like a big show with a small heart.

**

WHAT: “Little Women: The Musical,” music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, book by Allan Knee

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays (except Fourth of July) through Sundays, 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 1:30 p.m. July 5 and 19. Through July 23.

TICKETS: $36 to $94

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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