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Civic’s “Little Women,” even as a musical, does justice to the American classic

For nearly 150 years, American children – girls in particular – have read Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women.”

The story centers on the four March sisters – the tomboy, Jo; the eldest, Meg; beloved and sweet Beth; and the youngest, Amy – as they grow up during the Civil War with little money but much love in their family.

There have been six screen adaptations of “Little Women,” and numerous television series, both here and in Britain. The central character, Jo, has been portrayed by Katharine Hepburn and June Allyson, Susan Dey and Winona Ryder.

In the early 2000s, someone thought “Little Women” needed to be a musical, so they wrote one, tapped Sutton Foster to play Jo and took it to Broadway. It’s this version that opened at Spokane Civic Theatre on Friday night.

The story tweaks the original plot line a bit but hits upon the highlights. Beth’s sad fate is still Beth’s sad fate. Meg and Jo and Amy find nice men to marry. Marmee, the girls’ mother, is stoic and strong as her husband serves in the war.

So I have to admit that during the first act on Friday night I wondered why anyone thought “Little Women” needed to be a musical. The music is lovely but not all that memorable. (A second-act love song has the refrain, “Our love is like a small umbrella in the rain.” I still don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.) And because the story is necessarily condensed, it comes off like the “Illustrated Classics” version of a great American novel.

That said, Civic’s able cast helps make this a lovely evening of theater, one that’s perfectly family friendly.

The actresses playing the March sisters are well suited to their roles, both as actresses and singers. As Jo, Emily Cleveland has a number of big songs. She brings high energy and a pleasing singing voice to the stage. Julia Keefe, a local jazz singer making her Civic debut as Meg, is always a delight to hear. As Beth, longtime Civic actress Lacey Olson brings an endearing sweetness to her role. As the bratty Amy, Kelsi Blaser has almost as much fun as Cleveland, especially as the two of them butt heads often. Andrea R. Tate does an admirable job of showing us Marmee’s sadness and worry, while Jean Hardie provides a sarcastic kick as the girls’ Aunt March.

A note to any “Little Women” purists out there: The musical opens in New York, where Jo has moved to pursue a writer’s life. It’s a departure from the novel, but it works here. Also, there’s an “Operatic Tragedy” that runs through the show, a story Jo crafted at Christmastime to cheer up her sisters, and one she finishes in New York. This is performed by members of the cast behind various screened panels and is quite fun.

By Act II, whatever concerns I had about this show dissipated as “Little Women: The Musical” found its heart. The emotional core of the story lives here, whether it’s Jo and Beth flying a kite on the beach, Amy coming back from Europe with a beau in tow, or Jo realizing that she can live a life that’s both domestic and artistic.

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