Generations of little and not-so-little women have grown up reading and loving Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical “Little Women.” The beloved story first published in 1868 has been respectfully filmed three times,with Katherine Hepburn in 1933, June Allyson in 1949, and Winona Ryder in 1994. It has now been more or less respectfully adapted to the musical stage where the March girls, Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy can sing their hearts out, and, of course be inspired by their beloved and devoted Marmee, who gives them the prescribed motherly support as they come of age.
Efficient is for the word for Allan Knee’s book. Knee, who has written for stage and film, including “Finding Neverland,” a nominee for the Academy Award, based on his play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan.” Knee has done the expected judicious trimming of the familiar plot, while doing a bit of twisting about of time that only purists will find discomforting. This is the first major musical theater score for composer Jason Howland. If the score shows more promise than fulfillment, it is still light years ahead of many of the other new scores that have surfaced recently. I was, however,a little “Astonished” (the title of Jo’s sock-it-to-em Act I solo aria) by the merely conventional lyrics of Mindi Dickstein.
However, the production team has collaborated to create, for a modern audience,the old-fashioned urgencies that define this female-propelled Concord, Massachusetts family during the course of the Civil War. It is evident throughout that the talented, attractive and rather small company of ten is putting its heart and soul into a score that only occasionally fulfills our expectations.
What power the show has rests on the shoulders of Sutton Foster, the engaging performer and Tony winning star of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” She is excellent as the courageous pre-feminist Jo (Alcott was active in the women’s suffrage movement),who takes on the challenge of being a successful and independent woman writer while keeping her close ties with her more traditional sisters and mother.
The musical is, as is the novel, propelled by Jo. But unlike the novel in which Jo’s love for her family and her consuming ambitions are established in the early scenes with great care, the musical begins jarringly with Jo already living in the rooming house in New York where she has been busy at writing and unsuccessfully trying to peddle her undistinguished “blood and guts” romantic adventure stories. Also dabbling with dramatic literature (as did Alcott), Jo enthusiastically narrates some of her comically contrived “Operatic Tragedies” to those who will listen. These are dramatically staged and performed in the obligatory over-the-top swashbuckling manner. This gimmick quickly grows tiresome yet it is repeated to even less amusing effect later in the musical. This opening scene leads to a flashback in the March home where Maureen McGovern, as Marmee, wrings out the musical’s first heartfelt moments with “Here Alone,” as she pines for her husband, an army chaplain off to war.
The musical, under Susan H. Schulman’s confident direction (who also helmed “The Secret Garden”) doesn’t stray far from the novel’s essentials. The younger sisters are variously sparked and or startled by the older Jo’s dreams and behavior. Jo’s audacious reach for independence is contrasted by the amusingly differentiated personalities of her more traditionally motivated younger sisters. Things happen fast, so familiarity with the book is not a bad thing. Megan McGinnis is touching as the frail ill-fated Beth yet has her brightest moment singing a delightful ditty “Off to Massachusetts” with her grandfather Mr. Laurence (Robert Stattel).
Jenny Powers is charming as the romantic Meg who meets and falls in love Mr. Brooke (Jim Weitzer) faster than they can complete a waltz at Annie Moffat’s ball. Amy McAlexander appears to be having a lot of fun, as the spoiled and impetuous Amy. No one will be surprised that, during a lengthy tour of Europe with her imperious Aunt March (Janet Carroll),Amy has found love with Jo’s former suitor Laurie (Danny Gurwin). And right from the start, we can see the how the friendship between Jo and the much older Professor Bhaer (John Hickok) will develop and eventually be defined by the lovely “Small Umbrella in the Rain.”
There are two songs that are especially effective in stirring us. “Some Things Are Mean’t to Be,” that gives expression to the love that Jo shares with the ailing Beth, and “Days of Plenty,” a poignant aria that conveys Marmee’s inner strength in the face of loss. McGovern’s scenes are few but charged with her warming presence and her amazing voice.
Sutton has a strong voice, but pitches “Astonishing” to an audience that seemed willing to eat up her emphatic belting of it. Otherwise, Sutton gives an amusing performance, marked by her tomboyish striding about in long skirts. Her robust body language and broad facial expressions get the laughs they deserve and are apparently meant to be slightly at odds with the quaintness of the rest of the musical.
With the feel of turning pages in a book, Derek McLane’s pretty settings fly away and glide off and on without too much fuss, as they transport us from the boarding house, the March attic and parlor, Aunt March’s house, a ballroom, to the beach at Cape Cod. Costumer Catherine Zubor has sensibly muted the outfits for the March women. With similar artistry, lighting designer Kenneth Posner has bathed them all in a pretty glow. Did I like it? It should have been better. What I liked best was seeing lots of “little women” accompanied by their mothers, as well as fathers, laughing, weeping and responding enthusiastically to this classic story.
Virginia Theater, 245 West 55th Street