A correction was made to this article on Jan. 25, 2005.
It’s hard not to love the March girls of Concord, Mass., so deeply etched are Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy on the cultural and emotional landscape that they resurface from generation to generation like cherished friends. That built-in affection is fortunate, then, for “Little Women: The Musical,” a pleasant but staid revisitation that’s too leisurely in locating the heart of the material. But the producers of this unapologetically old-fashioned tuner have secured an appealing, capable cast whose conviction and energy help bolster the mostly unmemorable songs.
Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical story of growing up during and after the Civil War in a house dominated by women was ripe for a musical makeover, its themes of sisterhood and female empowerment providing an automatic connect for women of all ages. Feisty aspiring writer Jo March — who maintains fierce loyalty and love for her family while refusing the constricting role laid out for women at that time — seems a tailor-made figure to captain a musical, inviting anthemic power ballads about making one’s mark in life.
As Jo, Sutton Foster diligently conveys that spirit and has at least one of those songs in uplifting act-one closer “Astonishing.” But the deficiencies in Allan Knee’s book keep her one-dimensional until well into act two, when her family suffers a loss.
The first weakness comes with the opening. Instead of properly introducing Jo and establishing her deep bond with her sisters, the show begins in New York, after she has left home, prematurely detouring into enactment of the blood-and-guts tales of violence and seduction Jo is trying to get published.
Musically, the opening feels untidy, offering fragments of songs — “An Operatic Tragedy,” “Better” — before the first number that feels even halfway complete, “Our Finest Dreams.” It’s the first time the March sisters are seen together as themselves, contemplating Christmas as in chapter one of the novel.
Thereafter, the familiar story and characters start to kick in, given an assist by Maureen McGovern as the girls’ devoted mother. Marmee’s wistful song to her husband away at war, “Here Alone,” provides one of a handful of emotional peaks in the bland score (played by a period-appropriate, all-acoustic orchestra) by composer Jason Howard and lyricist Mindi Dickstein, both new to mainstream musicals.
The action faithfully follows key events of the book and adheres to its character descriptions: Jo is a galumphing tomboy with a powerful creative urge; Meg (Jenny Powers) a prim romantic; Beth (Megan McGinnis), a sweet, fragile girl, who even before her illness lives vicariously through Jo; and Amy (Amy McAlexander), a tantrum-prone brat with a yen for sophisticated living, who flits off to Europe with starchy Aunt March (Janet Carroll) and finds romance with Jo’s castoff, Laurie (Danny Gurwin).
Despite engagingly performed musical numbers like Laurie’s overture of friendship to Jo, “Take a Chance on Me,” or his enrollment as a de facto sibling, “Five Forever,” the first act drags.
Director Susan H. Schulman (absent from Broadway since 1998’s “The Sound of Music” revival) gets the job done, but while it’s all amiable and tasteful enough, it’s a little wan and not entirely absorbing.
Second act summons more depth of feeling, notably during “Some Things Are Meant to Be,” a touching, melancholy duet that cements the love between Jo and Beth during the latter’s Cape Cod convalescence. The song gracefully articulates Beth’s serenity about a life only half-lived.
The decision to play the story’s major tragedy offstage robs the musical of its most powerful emotional moment. But in McGovern’s stirring, vocally resplendent interpretation, Marmee’s song “Days of Plenty,” in which she conveys her grief and her fortitude to Jo, counters that absence.
Mercifully toning down her chronic perkiness from “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Foster confirms herself an accomplished musical performer, finding the humor in Jo’s social ineptitude and lack of pretense. While she sounds more Middle American than New Englander, her Jo is plucky and likable, and her numbers charmingly sung. Foster is backed, down the line, by a tight, talented ensemble, with notable work from Gurwin and McGinnis.
Despite its low-tech quaintness — a kite is whisked quickly offstage rather than making it fly; rainstorms are sans rain — the production is designed with some sophistication by Derek McLane, in particular Jo’s vast attic sanctuary. With the exception of the Marches’ living room, a cluttered conceptual mess, the sets are crisply conceived, employing elements like a garden trellis, ornate drapes or the beamed attic roof to create frames within the proscenium. This device works with the painted backdrops to give a not inappropriate bookish feel.
The show’s handsome upholstery extends to Catherine Zuber’s costumes, the muted colors of the main characters’ outfits contrasting the more vibrant, elaborate frocks of Jo’s overripe mock-Elizabethan melodramas.