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Maureen McGovern and Sutton Foster
in Little Women
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
George Cukor, who directed the first (excluding silents) and best film version of Little Women, once remarked that he wasn't happy when first handed the assignment: "It was a story that little girls read, like Elsie Dinsmore," he said. But he soon changed his tune. Louisa May Alcott's novel is a grown-up story for grownups, full of New England backbone and well drawn characters who really do mature and deepen. Watching Cukor's 1933 film, with Katharine Hepburn's exuberant, career-defining Jo March, one is immediately struck by how innately musical the material is. It's emotional, honest, touching, and every feeling Jo expresses is a song waiting to happen. She's ambitious, yearning, independent, spirited -- and she grows.

But if Little Women is such a natural for musical treatment, why do adaptors keep dropping the ball? A mid-1950s British version, A Girl Called Jo, didn't even run out the season; a Richard Adler TV adaptation of a few years later made little impression; and a 1960s Off-Broadway attempt lasted two months. There's also an obscure Little Women operetta from the 1930s that played the hinterlands. And there's Mark Adamo's recent, well received opera, which suggests that Alcott's nuanced characters and episodic narrative don't fit readily into the mold of a standard-issue musical. That's surely what they get in the old-fashioned rendering of Little Women that opened last night at the Virginia Theatre. With its deliberate scene-song-scene-song construction, traditional values boldly declared, simple life lessons, and pretty, unadventurous harmonies, you might mistake this show for the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein -- that is, if it were bigger and better.

Not that it's a washout: Allan Knee, author of the excellent screenplay for Finding Neverland, has skillfully organized the basic Alcott material. Much of Jason Howland's music is sweet and appealing in a corseted, A-A-B-A sort of way. And there's Sutton Foster's feisty Jo, upholding family values -- the real kind, not the GOP-platform type -- even as she defies 19th century New England assumptions about how young ladies are supposed to behave. This Little Women passes pleasantly, but it feels terribly safe -- pre-programmed, almost. It hits every emotional mark at the proper place, to the point where you wish that it weren't quite so neat and tidy.

Certainly, the issues confronting the March household of Concord, Massachusetts from 1863 to 1867 lend themselves to a musical. With father at war, Marmee (Maureen McGovern) is financially strapped and coping with parental overload. Jo is a self-dramatizing whirlwind, an aspiring writer distracted by the not unwelcome attentions of Laurie (Danny Gurwin), the rich, lonely boy next door. Meg (Jenny Powers) is being courted, ever so conventionally, by Laurie's dullish tutor, Mr. Brooke (Jim Weitzer); the two share a duet that could be lesser Sigmund Romberg. Amy (Amy McAlexander) ripens from a whiny, vain adolescent into a whiny, vain young woman, not helped by McAlexander's flouncing and pouting and over-enunciation; she punches every "t" as though she were trying to pummel it to the ground. The shy, docile Beth (Megan McGinnis) isn't strong enough for those rough New England winters. There's also the dour, judgmental Aunt March (Janet Carroll), whose purse strings and social puritanism exert an undue influence on the close-knit brood.

Writing largely autobiographically, Alcott invested this engaging ensemble with intriguing character contradictions and believable growing pains. No one's totally good or bad in her book; the apparent villains turn out to have redeeming traits, while even the most virtuous of the Marches are occasionally off-putting. Though some streamlining is inevitable in a musical adaptation, Knee's book -- and, even more so, Susan H. Schulman's overemphatic direction -- limit most of the characters to one trait that's flogged hard. Not Jo; she runs the gamut of emotions, and the well cast Foster, if hardly a little woman, finds the humor and physicality in her. But Marmee is a loving parent, period, complete with a "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" anthem wherein she tells Jo to look life in the eye. (McGovern's acting isn't much here but her silvery high notes are as pleasing as ever.) Meg's romantic, and that's it. Amy's whiny and vain. Beth's meek. The other dramatis personae are similarly one-note: the stolid Mr. Brooke, the galvanic Laurie, his cantankerous grandfather (a harrumphing Robert Stattel), the overbearing Aunt March. Equally simplified is the character of Professor Bhaer (John Hickok), the Continental outsider whom Jo unconvincingly learns to love. Indeed, watching Hickok's colorless blustering vs. Gurwin's easy charm, I wanted to rewrite Alcott and have Jo and Laurie live happily ever after.

The adaptors do get large swatches of the show right, particularly in the momentum-building second act. A potboiler short story of Jo's is imaginatively staged (with Jo concurrently miming all the parts). Jo and Beth share an affecting goodbye duet on the Cape Cod seashore, even if Mindi Dickstein's resolutely prosaic lyrics run to the likes of "Some things are meant to be / The clouds flying fast and free." Bhaer has a nice musical moment contemplating Jo's flight from their New York boardinghouse: "I wake in the morning and all that I hear/ Is the absence of sound." Throughout, Derek McLane's agile sets and Catherine Zuber's expressive costumes -- accenting the Marches' relative poverty as compared to the richness around them -- are assets. (But could Jo and Amy really share clothes, as is twice stated in the script? Sutton Foster seems about three feet taller than Amy McAlexander.) Kim Scharnberg's orchestrations of Howland's often lovely melodies sound full and comfortingly lush under Andrew Wilder's baton, even if there are only 13 pieces in the pit. Broadway economics being what they are, the stage also looks a little underpopulated: There are only 10 actors here, and Carroll has to double as Mrs. Kirk, Jo's landlady.

The show is kept satisfyingly in period, with only a few condescensions to contemporary mores. It's unlikely that Jo would exclaim "To hell with society!" or that she and Laurie would get so touchy-feely during their first unsupervised meeting -- at a formal party, yet! There's also the occasional capitulation to modern songwriting sensibilities: Jo's Act I finale is all anthemy in American Idol-style, with needlessly long and loud high notes. But for every modern flourish, there are two steps back: Jo sings banally of "The Fire within Me," while Laurie and Amy have a duet detailing their growing affection that might have fit equally well in that old operetta version of Little Women. Fond as I am of traditional musical theater forms, this show -- for all its beguiling moments -- would have more impact and pungency if it didn't keep posturing and going through such predictable paces. It's almost as if it were in contention to be named the Best Musical of 1958.

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