Louisa May Alcott's classic novel about the romantic adventures and sibling rivalries of the four March sisters has always worked, whether as book, TV movie or feature film. The recent Broadway musical version has crowd appeal for a national tour and retains Alcott's narrative energy.

Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel about the romantic adventures and sibling rivalries of the four March sisters has always worked, whether as book (1868), TV movie (1978) or feature film (1933, ’49, ’94). The recent Broadway musical version, directed by Susan Schulman (“The Secret Garden”), has crowd appeal for a national tour and retains Alcott’s narrative energy through a series of events that dash ahead like dramatized Cliffs Notes and often discard moments of substance.

The sole, welcome note of restraint is sounded by Maureen McGovern. In the midst of hyperactivity, McGovern (2005 Drama Desk nominee for her Marmee) keeps a warmly affecting grip on an all-wise, supermom character, infusing the part with grit and impressive strength.

When she sings “Here Alone,” while writing a letter to her husband, a soldier in the Civil War, she powerfully shapes the big notes and caresses the softer ones. Her other solo, “Days of Plenty,” expressing maternal grief at the loss of her daughter Beth, is also deeply felt, and Marmee seems a large, vital character, much more than the way the role is written.

Despite McGovern’s skill, Marmee is a secondary protagonist, and the rest of the tuner, though entertaining, has a tendency to push too hard.

Dedicated, tomboyish Jo (Kate Fisher) is shown at first in a New York prologue, musically acting out the parts of her blood-and-guts short story for infatuated friend Professor Bhaer (Andrew Varela).

Imaginatively staged by director Schulman and enhanced by Kenneth Posner’s atmospheric lighting, this opening is nevertheless an awkward story device, delaying the appearance of the March sisters for too long. When they do appear, their inter-relationships are established in broad strokes that fail to transform them from types into fully individualized personalities.

On her own, Fisher (Cosette in Broadway’s “Les Miserables”) sings beautifully. Her rendition of “Astonishing” is vibrant, and she achieves heights of theatrical excitement with “Better” and “The Fire Within Me.”

Fisher also succeeds in portraying authentic creative drive, the kind of sweeping ambition that makes her distrust and reject romance. Sometimes this attitude is startlingly overboard, particularly in the scene where her friend Laurie (Stephen Patterson) proposes, and she turns him away with such ferocity that we temporarily lose all sympathy and identification with her feelings.

Patterson’s Laurie is likable, if occasionally too goofy and silly, and he brings boyish appeal to “Take a Chance on Me,” and “The Most Amazing Thing,” a duet with self-centered Amy (Gwen Hollander), the sister who eventually becomes his bride. Hollander’s believable petulance and narcissism often border heavily on the obnoxious.

Beth is played with sweetness and delicacy by Autumn Hurlbert, and her duet with Jo (“Some Things Are Meant to Be”) is a gentle highlight, set against Derek McLane’s exquisite Cape Cod backdrop. Hurlbert, however, is never shy or frightened enough, and she seems too healthy for her tragic fate. Also short on pathos is her connection with crusty Mr. Laurence (Robert Stattel), and the sequence when he gives the dying girl a piano.

Allan Knee’s script waters down a promising plot element–the vituperative clashes between Jo and socially conscious, domineering old dragon Aunt March (Louisa Flaningam), which should be explosive and fade away with a heartfelt button. Knee compensates by giving a sharp, combative edge to the friendship between Jo and Professor Bhaer. There’s dramatic urgency in their banter, and it’s unfortunate that the love affair is prematurely lopped off early in act two after Jo hurries home to care for sickly Beth.

Jason Howland’s melodies work as an overall tapestry, in spite of tunes too similar to stand out as strong, separate entities, and Mindi Dickstein’s lyrics keep the action clear and flowing. Musical director Douglas Coates leads a capable orchestra that provides notably lovely keyboard figures.

Little Women -- The Musical

Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall; 3,000 seats; $64.75

Production

An Orange County Performing Arts Center, Kenneth H. Gentry, Randall L. Wreghitt, Dani Davis presentation of a musical in two acts, book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Directed by Susan H. Schulman. Choreography, Michael Lichtefeld.

Creative

Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Peter Hylenski; orchestrations, Kim Scharnberg; music coordinator, John Miller; production stage manager, Jason Juenker. Opened, reviewed Sept. 6, 2005; runs through Sept. 18. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Professor Bhaer - Andrew Varela Jo - Kate Fisher Amy, The Troll - Gwen Hollander Meg, Clarissa - Renee Brna Beth, Rodrigo Too - Autumn Hurlbert Marmee, The Hag - Maureen McGovern Mr. Laurence, The Knight - Robert Stattel Laurie, Rodrigo - Stephen Patterson Aunt March, Mrs. Kirk - Louisa Flaningam Mr. Brooke, Braxton - Michael Minarik

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