Little Women Book by Alan Knee. Music by Jason Howland. Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Directed by Susan H. Schulman. Choreography by Michael Lichtefeld. Set design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Musical direction by Andrew Wilder. Orchestrations by Kim Scharnberg. Cast: Sutton Foster, Maureen McGovern, Janet Carroll, Danny Gurwin, John Hickok, Amy McAlexander, Megan McGinnis, Jenny Powers, Robert Stattel, Jim Weitzer.
There are two surprising things about the new musicalization of Little Women that just opened. The first is that a musical of Louisa May Alcott's classic story took so long to reach Broadway; other stage incarnations and operatic settings have been around for years. The second is that the resulting adaptation of the universally admired novel will now only appeal to little girls who can't get tickets to Wicked.
But chances are even they would be frustrated by the bloated, charm-deprived show that's been created from Alcott's semi-autobiographical novel. Writers Allan Knee (book), Mindi Dickstein (lyrics), and Jason Howland (music) have ignored almost all the warm and winsome coming-of-age qualities of Alcott's original and created a forced and false musical that amply demonstrates why "good enough" is never good enough, even when a well-known title guarantees it an audience.
This is the kind of show that must end its first act with Sutton Foster standing downstage center and belting out a song called "Astonishing," which is so full of generic sentiment ("I will blaze until I find my time and place") that you may wonder whether she's playing aspiring writer Jo March or the plucky Kansas-born Millie Dillmount she won a Tony for in 2002. Precisely why the authors opted for such run-of-the-mill writing to bring to life such a flavorful book is never clear.
But they still should have known better than to tackle such a sprawling yet delicate narrative in such a tentative, pinch-penny way. Director Susan H. Schulman hasn't helped them much: Nothing she does can ever draw attention away from the 10-person cast and 12-piece orchestra that aren't sufficient to tell this story of four young women and their mother during the Civil War years in the large-ish Virginia Theatre. In this underwritten, undercomposed, understaged, and underpopulated epic, you're always more aware of what's missing than what's there.
What's present isn't likely to be too attractive to those familiar with the novel, though they're probably the only ones who'll be able to follow the meandering plot and make sense of the sketchy characterizations. Those not armed with such foreknowledge will still be able to discern the sisters - the feisty Jo, the romantic Meg (Jenny Powers), the easily hurt Amy (Amy McAlexander), and the kindly Beth (Megan McGinnis) - but will feel little emotional connection to them.
This is because Knee's book so exaggerates the episodic nature of Alcott's story that you may feel you're watching an ABC sitcom or an After-School Special. The tomboyish Jo must struggle to appease her disapproving aunt (Janet Carroll). Jo vows to never forgive Amy after she burns a story Jo has long toiled over, which all changes as soon as Amy's life is in danger. And the girls must variously deal with each other experiencing love and rejection before realizing they will always love each other and remain a family.
Alcott's knowing attitude and acute sensitivity give the novel a sense of forward motion and of accumulation of character that result in a deeply moving chronicle of a family's joys and heartbreaks; here, these events seem primarily vapid. The show taps into honest feelings only twice, both in the second act: Jo and Beth commune while flying a kite at Cape Cod, and sing a lovely song about life and fate, "Some Things Are Meant to Be," and the girls' mother Marmee (Maureen McGovern) confronts Jo about dealing with loss in the encouraging, world-wise "Days of Plenty."
That's the show's finest moment, and McGovern's is the finest performance: mannered, controlled, maternal, all-encompassing. She commands the stage whenever she's present, and commands your attention and heart every time she speaks or sings. Foster (the only performer billed above the title) has far more opportunities, but is strident and modern as Jo, seeming less a burgeoning 19th-century female writer than a struggling Suffragette more at home several decades later.
Powers, McGinnis, and McAlexander all read too old and hard for their roles, though each finds a more specific character than Foster does. Danny Gurwin, playing Laurie, a neighbor and eventual romantic interest to two March girls, seems more appropriate for 2005 Chelsea than 1865 Concord, though John Hickok and Jim Weitzer are nicely understated as Jo and Meg's suitors. Carroll brings a juicy sense of society to her somewhat clichéd role.
But bringing this tepidly told tale to life wouldn't be easy for anyone. The book is restless and the score, which vacillates in style between Music Theory 101 and reheated Jason Robert Brown, doesn't enhance the storytelling as much as distract from it. Only one song, a piano ditty called "Off to Massachusetts," sounds like it could, would, and should be sung by these people. Most other songs have titles like "Our Finest Dreams," "Take a Chance on Me," and "The Fire Within Me" and are of textbook sentiment. Another, "I'd Be Delighted," is Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Shall We Dance?" without charm or subtext; a bouncy tribute to togetherness for the girls and Laurie, "Five Forever," could fit into almost any show.
All of this - and two dramatizations of "operatic tragedies" that do little more than give cast members a chance to play dress-up and affect funny voices - comes across as heavily calculated, more for the benefit of the audience's youngest members than the story. Only Catherine Zuber's costumes truly convey creativity or sense of period; Derek McLane's curtain-heavy set, except for a stunning autumnal Falmouth backdrop in the second act, and Kenneth Posner's lights and Andrew Wilder's musical direction are sufficient but spiritless. Like the writing, they're more starting places than finished products.
McGovern is the production's sole transcendent element; she's wonderful, but not enough. By the time the show ends, we're supposed to be charmed and moved by how these women have learned and grown from their experiences, but how can we when we know so little about them beyond their names and basic traits? At least this allows us to feel some kinship with Little Women's creators: It's painfully obvious they never got to know their title characters very well, either.