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Review: Fabrefaction stages a charming “Little Women” — but why?

Mary Raines Battle gives a strong performance as Jo.
Mary Raines Battle gives a strong performance as Jo.
Mary Raines Battle gives a strong performance as Jo.

There have been about 573 adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” for stage, screen and television. That’s not an exact count, but it certainly seems that it could be that many, and strangely, the most memorable thing about any of them still remains the fact that Katharine Hepburn once played Jo March.

The new production of “Little Women” at Fabrefaction Theatre Company through December 23 remounts the 2005 Broadway version, which injects big power ballads into the story of the March girls. It’s a charming show, but this particular mix of music and story never quite gels. In the end, the musical’s new script, lyrics and music seem unlikely to add anything memorable to the oceans of existent versions of the oft-told story.

That story itself is probably familiar enough by now. The March father is off serving as a Union Army chaplain in the Civil War, leaving the four girls — Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy — at home in Concord, Massachusetts, with their beloved Marmee as they deal with the difficulties and deprivations of war and an absent father.

It’s a longish book as children’s books go, and it’s built more on accumulating vignettes than on a single plotline, which may be one of the overarching problems in dramatizing it. There are a lot of incidents in the novel, but cumulatively not a whole lot happens. In short, they grow up. There’s a lot of stuff to cram into a couple of hours, and though a great deal occurs, it’s hard to discern an emotional center.

One doesn’t feel the 19th century wafting from the stage production the way it emerges from the novel. I suppose no one will really miss the non-stop sewing, all that fuss over ladies’ gloves, the pious references to Pilgrim’s Progress and so on, but somehow all of it forms a crucial backdrop for the novel’s most interesting story: Jo’s tomboyishness isn’t just cute or sassy, but daringly rebellious. Her development into her spirited, independent modernity is the story’s most compelling thread.

The musical wisely brings Jo front and center for most of the show, and Mary Raines Battle does an excellent job of carrying so much weight. The script has her exclaiming “Christopher Columbus!” as a sort of “Jiminey Crickets!” interjection. In the wrong hands it could easily develop a sort of “gee, whiz” preciousness, but Battle gives it a nice modern spin.

Her Jo is eager to please, but she’s also growing impatient with the unimaginative stuffiness around her and the limitations for women. When Aunt March chides Jo that she’ll soon develop into a young woman, Battle responds with a delightfully revolted, do-you-have-to-discuss-that-in-front-of-me “Christopher Columbus!”

The story itself is dangerously sentimental, but surprisingly the songs effectively avoid becoming too sweet or maudlin. Battle as Jo and Lyndsay Ricketson as Beth do an especially nice job of navigating this difficult territory in the song about Beth’s illness, “Some Things Are Meant to Be.”

The problem is that the emotions are huge — the songs don’t let us forget it — but real connection to the characters remains elusive. Father’s absence is a huge deal in Act I, and it’s the subject of one of the show’s best numbers, finely sung by Mary Welch Rogers as Marmee, but he never arrives home and he is barely mentioned in Act II.

The show is charming, the songs pleasant, but in the end, there’s something too frenetic and fragmented about the musical’s script, too safe and generic about the songs. The cast does a fine job, but I imagine more than a few audience members may leave without much more to say than “Did you know that Katharine Hepburn once played the part of Jo?”

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