Louisa May Alcott would doubtless be perplexed by the alterations in tone and character perpetrated on her timeless classic by “Little Women — The Broadway Musical.” As a staunch advocate of youth drama, Alcott would surely applaud the opportunity to take the kids — especially little women — to a wholesome live show. But miscalculated adaptation and staging make for an overlong and sometimes off-putting experience.
Tuner’s glaring weakness has always been its decision to alter the dynamic of the four March sisters. Instead of being the first among equals in terms of dramatic interest, Alcott’s surrogate Jo is turned by librettist Knee into the utter and complete center of attention, a conventional prefeminist heroine of the Maria von Trapp/Belle/Nellie Forbush variety. Everything in the plot is sublimated to Jo’s vague and uninspired character arc about “wanting to be astonishing.” Meanwhile, the sisters are allotted one trait each (Meg, moody; Amy, pouty; Beth, wan), and their scenes are skewed solely to offer Jo obstacles to overcome or lessons to learn. Doomed Beth, for instance, is denied an onstage death but totters through a seaside duet designed to give Jo the strength to carry on.
As lopsided as this approach is, it can get by when the actress playing Jo possesses the charisma and charm of a Sutton Foster, who shone in the New York original. But in this touring version, Kate Fisher works too hard to too little effect. Overdoing the tomboy routine, she bounces off the furniture and mugs shamelessly, playing the supposedly realistic scenes in the same over-the-top style as Jo’s blood-and-guts Gothic yarns that are tediously dramatized at the beginning of each act. Fisher wears out her welcome long before intermission.
Some cast members remain believably in the 19th century, notably Robert Stattel as the gruff Mr. Laurence and Autumn Hurlbert as Beth (their charming bonding duet “Off to Massachusetts” is a highlight). Others are directed by Susan H. Schulman into comic takes and line deliveries that smack too obviously of the present day. Andrew Varela (Prof. Bhaer) commits some farcical excess but does invest the role of Jo’s eventual suitor with more humor and likability than is usually seen in that character.
Towering above all is top-billed Maureen McGovern, repeating her Broadway role as Marmee. Her warmth and sincerity, and her insistence on simply listening and reacting to what others are saying, make each of her few scenes a joy. Yet even McGovern’s work is marred by the overemphasis on Jo. After nailing “Days of Plenty,” a variation on “Climb Every Mountain” that is the best song in the score, McGovern isn’t permitted to reap her deserved ovation but is forced to walk off, the better to keep the focus on her daughter just sitting there.
Catherine Zuber’s handsome costumes convey a period authenticity lacking in the score’s contempo ballads and orchestrations. As for Derek McLane’s sets, they seem meant to evoke a cluttered Victorian aesthetic but simply look like clutter. Lace tormentors uncomfortably share stage with drapery pieces, Currier and Ives-like backdrops and odd furniture pieces that glide in and out (none too smoothly, at least on opening night). It cannot be easy to house an essentially intimate story in a vast space like that of the Pantages, but framing the stage with floor-to-ceiling raw wood scaffolding and a flying bridge right out of Eugene Lee’s design for “Sweeney Todd” falls short of the transformation needed.