Sutton Foster in Little Women(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Sutton Foster in Little Women
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
There was a time on Broadway when musicals were star vehicles; shows were written for the likes of Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. Well, the new musical version of Little Women might have been written as a vehicle for Sutton Foster. Born for the role of Jo March, that feisty, autobiographical creation of Louisa May Alcott, Foster is sensational in the part. She performs it with the kind of musical theater chops that do, indeed, remind us of the stars of Broadway's golden age.

But there is a cost to the source material when it becomes star-driven. The novel Little Women is not specifically Jo's story, although she is its driving force. The other characters get shorter shrift in the musical adaptation of Alcott's classic tale of four young sisters growing up during the Civil War under the loving tutelage of their mother; the show might be more readily titled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman.

There's a difference of opinion among these two critics on this point. Barbara, who grew up with the novel and has a deep affection for the original story, is dismayed by the musical's structure. It has a framing device that automatically makes Jo not just the most compelling of the four sisters but the singular focus of the show. This version of Little Women begins with Jo already in New York, attempting to sell her tales of "blood and guts." At the very top of the show, Jo acts out the melodrama she's written. (This comedy bit is surprisingly similar to the character Ruth Sherwood acting out her stories in Wonderful Town -- but those vignettes were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.) On the other hand, Scott doesn't mind the choices made by book writer Allan Knee; in fact, he applauds them. His view is that, in condensing this sprawling novel into a musical with a clear dramatic arc, Knee's decision to put Jo's story front and center makes perfect sense. With that decision made, the musical's structure seems not only sensible but quite brilliant, particularly in the way that Jo's melodrama is altered at the top of the second act in order to show how Jo has grown as a writer.

We're married. We're supposed to disagree. But, on virtually everything but the show's book, we find ourselves in critical harmony. For example, we both believe that Maureen McGovern is a revelation as Marmee. If you have a character who's one of the greatest mothers of all time, why not get a woman with one of the greatest voices of all time to play her? McGovern invests Marmee with a warm dignity that makes the audience immediately understand why her four girls love and respect her, and when she sings, there is perfection in the air. She literally stops the show in Act II with her soaring rendition of "Days of Plenty." In years to come, look for this stirring anthem to be performed in benefit events across the country.

We also agree that Danny Gurwin -- who plays Laurie, the young man who first falls in love with Jo -- will find greater stardom as a result of his winning performance. He shows off a thrilling voice in what could turn out to be a star-making supporting role. While the other three sisters might have been better off going to Moscow rather than staying in Concord, Massachusetts, Megan McGinnis is luminous as Beth and Jenny Powers is sufficiently beautiful as Meg. But Amy McAlexander as the petulant kid sister, Amy, gives a far more irritating performance than the character demands; director Susan Schulman should have reined her in. John Hickok is amiable as the professor with whom Jo eventually falls in love.

Jason Howland's music is melodic if unexceptional, while Mindi Dickstein's lyrics are problematic. Though they do a wonderful job of explicating character and driving the plot, the lyrics aren't particularly clever or catchy. Fortunately, Foster, McGovern, Gurwin, and Hickok are such strong singers that they make some mediocre songs sound far better than they really are. Despite its flaws, Little Women moved and entertained us. It's a vehicle with a multi-talented musical theater star as its engine: Sutton Foster here proves that Thoroughly Modern Millie was no fluke; her performance has Tony nomination written all over it.

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Dick Gallagher with Patti LuPone(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Dick Gallagher with Patti LuPone
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Hats Off to Dick Gallagher

We couldn't let this moment go by without mentioning the recent passing of composer-musical director-pianist Dick Gallagher. We attended his memorial service on Sunday night and, despite the fact that this weekend's blizzard had tapered off only eight hours earlier, the funeral home was SRO; Dick's friends and colleagues could not be deterred by a foot-and-a-half of snow, icy roads, and a below-zero wind chill factor.

Dick wrote wonderful, funny songs -- "Laughing Matters" will stand the test of time -- and did brilliant work as a musical director for some of our most talented performers. No wonder that Patti LuPone was at the service to speak in his honor. But the main reason so many people came to pay their last respects to this singular man was that he always respected them. There is no argument on this point: Dick Gallagher was one of the most well liked and admired men in show business.

As long as we've been writing about theater, cabaret, etc. -- and that's a long time -- Dick was always considered among the best at this craft. His contributions to hit Off-Broadway musicals and his working with the rich and famous did not change him. Self-effacing and famously shy, he was always the ultimate team player. If Dick was your musical director, you had his total support; he never showboated, never pulled focus, and never demanded a piano solo to show off his extraordinary musicianship. He was that extremely rare individual with infinitely more talent than ego. With Dick Gallagher's passing, a true gentleman took his final bow.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]