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Photograph by Joan Marcus

A Girl Named Jo: Kate Fisher (left) as Jo and Louisa Flannigam as Aunt March sing their way through 'Little Women.'

Sisters Act

Louisa May Alcott's famous siblings burst into song at American Musical Theatre of San Jose

By Rob Pratt

THE SURPRISING THING about the new musical-theater adaptation of the classic American novel Little Women, presented by American Musical Theatre of San Jose, is not that Broadway took on such literary fare but that no Broadway musical version of the story has been produced before now. Louisa May Alcott's sprawling coming-of-age tale has spawned nearly a dozen adaptations for film, television, dramatic stage and opera house. After a barely five-month run on Broadway, Little Women comes to town in a winning production that's sure to remind audiences why Alcott's novel remains a favorite of American literature.

Little Women tells the story of a quartet of sisters raised by a single mother whose husband left their New England home to fight with the Union Army during the Civil War. It's a quintessentially American story that deals with individual transformation, with living life contrary to society's expectation and with shucking European values in favor of homegrown traditions.

After a brief overture, Allan Knee's book rushes headlong into the operatic imagination of oldest-sister Jo, who longs to become a published writer. In rapid succession, Knee introduces the other sisters, as well as mother Marmee and the neighbor boy Laurie, who quickly becomes Jo's best friend. The first scenes unfold too quickly to leave the audience with anything but the most fleeting impression of the characters. By the middle of the first act, however, the breakneck pace slackens, and the story develops an emotional depth that rises to a heart-rending climax in Act 2.

While classy and craftily orchestrated for a synthesizer-free ensemble of winds, strings and percussion, composer Jason Howland's score does the job without distinction. The same goes for Mindi Dickstein's lyrics, which tell the story without offering much in the way of clever imagery or rhyme—and which sometimes clunk around the stage like pots tumbling from a kitchen cabinet. "[Jo] Yes, I surely think I could/ [Aunt March] If you could that would be good," goes one couplet from the first act's "I'd Be Delighted."

Despite the middling material, phenomenal performances from a top-notch cast and whip-smart direction from Susan Schulman, who staged the original Broadway production, make Little Women an endearing and wholly satisfying show. Featuring 1970s pop crooner Maureen McGovern, who brings a stately melancholy to Marmee, the cast plays like an orchestra so finely tuned and balanced that the entire venue vibrates with pure pitch.

Kate Fisher renders ebullience and yearning in Jo that's downright magnetic. Andrew Varela plays Professor Bhaer with warmth and self-effacing good humor, effortlessly morphing the character from an awkward comic figure into a romantic interest. Gwen Hollander expertly matures youngest-sister Amy from a restless youth into a fetching young woman, a transformation wrought as much by Hollander's subtle movements as her powerful voice.

Even though presented in the technically challenged San Jose Center for Performing Arts, the show unfolds flawlessly, with impeccable sound and lighting, on an eye-popping set crafted by Derek McLane.

Little Women, presented by American Musical Theatre of San Jose, plays Tuesday-Fri at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 1 and 6:30pm through Oct. 23. Tickets are $46-$73. (888.455.7469)

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From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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