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Theater review: Vocal performance is the thing about CenterPoint's 'Little Women'

Published: Thursday, Aug. 30 2012 12:00 p.m. MDT

“Little Women: the Musical,” CenterPoint Legacy Theatre, Davis Center for the Performing Arts, through Sept. 22, at 7:30 p.m., $17-$20, 801-298-1302 or centerpointtheatre.org

CENTERVILLE — “Little Women” is a lovely family musical about a lovely family, and the CenterPoint Legacy Theatre cast gives the show lovely affection.

Louisa May Alcott’s American classic, one of the best-loved books of all time, received standard musical-theater adaptation by scriptwriter Allan Knee. Readers who embrace the weighty novel are harsh on the shorthand treatment of Alcott’s textured characters.

As those who consider the March family members living, breathing women who they enjoyed a relationship with since their first read (my wife included) are quick to point out, the musical reduces Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy to four plucky caricatures, and recovery from a heartbreak is only a Marmee ballad away. Jo is feisty, Meg is the romantic, Beth is kindly and Amy has her Marsha, Marsha, Marsha moments. Oh, and Marmee is stalwart.

But the songs, by composer Jason Howland and lyricist Mindi Dickstein, are truly enchanting, and the musical is now one of Broadway’s gifts to community theater. The strength of the songs helps to overcome the adaptation’s weaknesses to become a thoroughly enjoyable musical evening.

At CenterPoint, “Little Women” receives additional poignancy by casting the mother-daughter team of Maddie Tarbox as Jo and Maurie Tarbox as Marmee in the Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday cast reviewed here. Their connections to each other, and their characters, are heartfelt and deeply evident. It also doesn’t hurt the audience reception that each is a fine actress with remarkable Broadway-belt strengths.

The characters’ near-curtain solos, “Days of Plenty” for Marmee quickly followed by “The Fire Within Me” for Jo, always moving and heart-wrenching segments in the show, are undeniably impactful under Tarbox control.

Also, prepare yourself for the kite-flying sequence in “Some Things Are Meant to Be,” the duet between Jo and the frail Beth, nicely played by Summer Sloan.

But each scene, under Leslie Giles-Smith's expert direction, is enjoyable, with the contributions from Karina Gillette as Meg and Megan Smyth as Amy, evident in “More Than I Am” for Gillette (with Landon Cole Welch as John Brooke) and “The Most Amazing Thing” for Smyth (with Connor Padilla as Laurie).

As mentioned, the songs for “Little Women” are wonderful compositions, ranging from lovely ballads to lilting waltzes to energetic, upbeat tunes. It seems my favorites are the men’s, perhaps in compensation for how little the audience comes to know the masculine characters. “Take a Chance on Me,” for Laurie, and “Small Umbrella in the Rain,” for Professor Bhaer (a sturdy presence with Kevin Burtenshaw in the role), are additional superb moments in the musical adaptation.

In the best page-to-stage adaptations — “Ragtime,” “South Pacific,” “Man of La Mancha” come to mind — the authors re-imagine the source into a fresh and dynamic musical theater experience. Many of the songs in the musicalization of “Little Women” are expert enough to enter the American Songbook canon, and the CenterPoint cast focuses on this vivid aspect of “Little Women” with fine vocal performances.

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