Losing the Heartbeat: “Little Women: The Broadway Musical”

Photo by Nile Scott Studios

Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company
Based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott
Book by Allan Knee
Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein
Music by Jason Howland
Directed & Choreographed by Ilyse Robbins
Music Direction by Matthew Stern

November 25 – December 23, 2022
Greater Boston Stage Company
Stoneham, MA

Review by Kate Lew Idlebrook

Stoneham, Mass — As producers mine history for intellectual property that can be spun into gold, especially those that are in the public domain, they can sometimes lose sight of what makes a classic a classic.

Unfortunately, this was the case with Little Women: The Broadway Musical. In the original story, Luisa May Alcott created a world full of wonderfully full, relatable characters. She allowed her characters to speak for themselves and trusted her readers to hear the message. I only wish the Greater Boston Stage Company’s production of this play had the space to do the same.

This classic 19th century novel is, at its core, a story of family – the one we’re born into and the one we chosen, and this production shines in the few small moments of genuine interaction between the cast of strong actors. These are the moments when they can find those small beats of love in the original work.

Those beats too often are lost, however, in a production that attempts to wring as much emotion out of its audience as possible, calling to mind the warning of why one shouldn’t gild the lily. While the actors ably attempt to buy into the script and sell the over-the-top delivery demanded of them, the end result is campier than it is profound, and it leaves a theatergoer with a sense of opportunity lost.

The musical is based on the original story of the same name by Louisa May Alcott. Taking place during the Civil War, it is the tale of a mother and her four teenage daughters navigating life on their own. With their father away, the girls learn to rely on each other as they grow into women who navigate love and loss. It is a simple story that can reveal profound truths.

The production takes creative liberties with the script, condensing and changing elements to make an expansive novel, one which launched a literary universe, fit onto the stage. These cuts were made to add space for the musical numbers which are there to wow the audience.

While these changes might not bother those who are not familiar with the story, the musical numbers aren’t worth it. This may enrage the May Alcott purists and frustrate more than a few theatergoers.

The songs felt too on the nose and were over-stuffed with drama while lacking range in tone. Rather than enhancing the acting and Alcott’s characters, these songs dissipate any chemistry created by the actors onstage.

The result of the accumulation of these forced moments is that when we get to the dramatic moments we are supposed to care deeply about, we are simply not invested. With the nail-on-the-head tone of the book and lyrics, once we arrive at the emotional payoff towards the end of the show, the metaphor employed to illustrate grief and loss feels obvious and empty.

In the current Broadway climate, when there is incredible pressure to create big-budget spectacle, it is understandable that someone tried to launch a showy production of Little Women. It would have been better if the producers had done more homework on the source material and remembered that the profoundness of the work can be found in the very title of the book.

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