Powerhouse personnel onstage and off infuse "Little Women -- the Musical" with humor and comedy to broaden its appeal to contempo audiences, compromising the effort to capture the spirit of Louisa May Alcott's classic. The tradeoff is that the novel's essence -- the compassion, poignancy, heartbreak, elation and hope of everyday life -- is not sustained.

Powerhouse personnel onstage and off infuse “Little Women — the Musical” with humor and comedy to broaden its appeal to contempo audiences, compromising the effort to capture the spirit of Louisa May Alcott’s classic. The tradeoff is that the novel’s essence — the compassion, poignancy, heartbreak, elation and hope of everyday life — is not sustained. The less a patron knows about the book or Alcott, the more this musicalized version’s charm will work. A better balance should be vigorously pursued during the three months between tryouts at Duke U. and the scheduled opening Jan. 23 at Broadway’s Virginia Theater.

Alcott’s book is as much autobiography as fiction. She is personified in the March family as Jo (Sutton Foster), the sister with writing talent, a strong sense of responsibility for her family, high spirit, sensitivity and dreams.

Writer Allan Knee sets the play in 1863-66, shifts scenes between Concord, Mass., and New York City, and synthesizes events that occurred outside the period into the Civil War years.

Sister Meg (Jenny Powers) marries John Brooke (Jim Weitzer), who, in Union uniform, is the only visible intrusion of the war on familial relationships. Jo’s father, not seen in the play, is also away fighting. In her father’s absence, Jo feels compelled to share responsibility for moral and financial support with the girls’ mother, Marmee (Maureen McGovern).

Comedy, hardly a strength of the novel, dominates opening scenes of both acts, gradually yielding midway in the second act to the intimacy of Jo’s relationship with her sickly sister, Beth (Megan McGinnis); her mother; and her friend at a New York boarding house, Professor Bhaer (John Hickok).

An emotional highlight, of which there are few, comes in act 2, as Jo’s writing finances a visit to the beach to comfort Beth in the final days of her battle with scarlet fever. The lyrics and score reach a musical pinnacle in their duet “Some Things Are Meant to Be.”

Earlier, neighbor Mr. Laurence (Robert Stattel) gives Beth a family heirloom piano in appreciation for her playing soothing his gruffness. McGinnis again achieves an emotional highlight by her reactions to the gift.

Sister Amy (Amy McAlexander) and Aunt March (Janet Carroll) boost the lighter side, although a double-entendre reference to Amy’s smile resembling both Leonardo’s Madonna and the contemporary Material Girl is horribly incongruous, a baseness unfitting Knee or Alcott. Amy lives with her aunt during financially hard times. Their travel and training transform Amy into a lady boastful of her achievements. Jo is happy for Amy when she snatches Laurie (Danny Gurwin) from their friendship into matrimony.

A happy ending has Professor Bhaer arriving from New York City during Amy’s wedding to reveal his true feelings for Jo. Their duet, about love being a “Small Umbrella in the Rain,” is amusing.

Director Susan Schulman reportedly delayed production from spring until Foster was available for the lead role. Foster completed her Tony-winning turn in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and began rehearsals Sept. 2. She and McGovern lead a strong and deep cast.

A 14-piece orchestra of area musicians doesn’t perform with the confidence that more experienced players will have in boosting big-venue tuners.

Cast, lyrics and music are enjoyable, although several weaker numbers could be chiseled to save time or allow for expansion of dialogue in emotionally stronger scenes.

Little Women - The Musical

Reynolds Theater, Duke U.; 589 Seats, $35 Top

Production

A Theater Previews at Duke presentation, in association with Randall L. Wreghitt, Dani Davis, Ken Gentry, Chase Mishkin, Ruben Brache and Lisa Vioni, of a musical in two acts based on the novel "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott, book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Directed by Susan H. Schulman. Musical direction, Andrew Wilder.

Creative

Choreography, Michael Lichtefeld. Sets, Derek Lane; costumes, Catherine Zuber; sound, Peter Hylenski; vocal arranger, Lance Horne; orchestration, Kim Scharnberg; production supervisor, Beverly Randolph. Opened, reviewed Oct. 15, 2004. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN. Musical Numbers: "An Operatic Tragedy" (Parts One and Two)," "Better," "Here Alone," "Could You?" "I'd Be Delighted," "Take a Chance on Me," "Beyond This Tiny Room," "Off to Massachusetts," "I'll Love You Anyway," "More Than I Am," "Astonishing," "The Weekly Volcano Press," " "How I Am," "Some Things Are Meant to Be," "The Most Amazing Thing," "Days of Plenty," "The Fire Within Me," "Small Umbrella in the Rain."

Cast

Jo - Sutton Foster Professor Bhaer - John Hickok Amy - Amy McAlexander Meg - Jenny Powers Beth - Megan McGinnis Marmee - Maureen McGovern Mr. Laurence - Robert Stattel Laurie - Danny Gurwin Aunt March, Mrs. Kirk - Janet Carroll John Brooke - Jim Weitzer

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