Little Women is at first glance an unusual choice for an Australian musical production. But the decision to mount a show that offers a strong selection of plum roles for female performers reflects CEO and Artistic Director Peter Cousens' intention to offer a way to showcase the remarkable Australian musical theatre female talent that exists, and to make a positive contribution to those in the Australian Musical Theatre profession.
Personally I also see this decision to program work that provides new and exciting opportunities for young, up-and-coming performers reflective of the kind of positive impact that Kookaburra seeks to have on the Australian community, both through staging bright, breezy, family-friendly shows and through initiatives as the Kookaburra Kids' Discover the Theatre Program, allowing students to see the backstage happenings of rehearsals and crew that help to bring a show to life.
The show is a musical theatre adaptation of the classic novel by American author Louisa May-Alcott, whose work has never been out of print since it was first published in 1868. It tells the story of The March family girls and their mother. Relatively poor, but well-bred young ladies, the girls wait patiently for their father to return home from war. While they wait, each grow up in their own way, finding love, and carving out their own future away separate to their beloved family home.
Regrettably many of the songs in the musical are fairly forgettable, especially in the first half, with the cast working hard to create excitement from dull material, sometimes leading to an over-emphasis on the cheese factor. Some of the character scenes early on also feel quite laboured, possibly due to the fact that a story that spans several years has been compressed into a few short hours, with character relationships, especially between Laurie (Stuart Mahy) and Jo March difficult to invest in. The second half picks up with stronger song material and arguably better dramatic opportunities as well.
Having said that, while this is a long show, clocking in at around the three-hour mark, it is overall an enjoyable ride that skips along quite nicely. Lead Kate Maree Hoolihan is a pleasure to watch, with bucketloads of charisma, a strong, pure voice and a lovely sense of playfulness that is key to the character of Jo March, brash tomboy, wildly enthusiastic writer of tall-tales, and loving sister to the gaggle of March girls. The appeal of the production largely hangs on the audience liking and supporting Jo in all her endeavours, and Hoolihan achieved this with a winning smile and a voice that soars on numbers such as 'Astonishing' and 'The Fire Within Me'.
Standouts included Jodie Harris as the demure Beth March, and Hayden Tee as Professor Bhaer, who somehow manages to make a bearded, bespectacled, Wittgenstein-reading German Professor decked out in a puffy yellow Scottish plaid suit a heart-melting love interest.
While it's not the most electrifying show of unforgettable songs and goose-bump moments, Little Women offers fun, crisp, warm-hearted family entertainment. Overall, as Professor Bhaer would say, it's 'muffins and jam'.
Book Allan Knee | Music Jason Howland | Lyrics Mindi Dickstein
Based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott
Directed by Stuart Maunder
Venue: Seymour Centre
Season: Nov 5 - Dec 7