In its century-long history on stage and screen, Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 1869 novel Little Women has been transmogrified into practically everything except a Broadway musical: at least two nonmusical plays, at least six movies, four TV series, no less than two Japanese anime series (I kid you not, look up Wakakusa Monogatari on IMDB), a touring operetta, a TV musical, a London musical, an Off-Broadway musical, a ballet, and latterly Mark Adamo’s widely seen opera. Apart from the 1933 George Cukor-Katharine Hepburn film version, few of the prior adaptations have left much of a lingering impression. The work missed what one imagines was the optimal time for it as a musical, the late 1940s, when Broadway was drunk on nostalgic Americana, and the work could have fitted neatly in place alongside Bloomer Girl, Up in Central Park, and the Currier & Ives ballet in Make Mine Manhattan. But of all the eras of Broadway music, the current one, ruled by pop-rock belting, is probably the one to which Little Women is least adaptable; our time is to Louisa May Alcott’s sensibility roughly what the wolf was to Little Red Riding Hood. And “roughly” would be the right word in every sense.
Under those circumstances, the remarkable part is not what Little Women, the musical, lacks or where it goes wrong, though there’s plenty against it on both counts. What’s remarkable is how much of Alcott’s substance and spirit the authors and their director, Susan H. Schulman, have been able to preserve, faced with what must have been incredible pressures—from their own worst impulses as well as from the business end of the enterprise—to cheapen and coarsen the piece beyond recognition. Even as it stands, watching the musical feels a little like being married to a schizophrenic: You’re with a person you’ve known for years to be sweet, intelligent, vivacious, honest, and tenderly empathetic; then suddenly, out of nowhere, that person begins running around and screaming at you in dementia. When the screaming subsides, there are long, delightfully lucid intervals, during which you remember exactly why you fell in love in the first place; then the dementia sets in again and you wonder if you should phone Bellevue.
Because some of these demented seizures are politically motivated, their chief victim is Jo (Sutton Foster), the tomboyish second daughter of the March family, self-appointed surrogate male to her mother and her three daintier sisters while their father is away serving as a Union Army chaplain in the Civil War. Enterprising and rebellious, with dreams of authorship that eventually come true, Jo is a feminist heroine before her time. This, and her plot-driving energy, have always made Jo the focus of adaptations of Little Women (the Off-Broadway version was actually titled Jo), but here the authors have made her a strident campaigner of the Betty Friedan era—in Catherine Zuber’s costumes for this version, she literally wears the pants in the family—whom you wouldn’t be surprised to see burning a bra or puffing on a Virginia Slim. For a first-act finale, in the first of what will surely be many Broadway attempts to duplicate the effect of Idina Menzel’s big levitation number in Wicked, Jo gets a “power ballad” (the absurd current name for this repulsive phenomenon) in which she vows her determination to be “Astonishing.”
This overemphasis on Jo’s nondomestic ambitions—which also unwisely includes several frenetic attempts to stage the melodramatic short stories she writes—tends to crowd out the other characters, who are presented too often as contrasts to Jo rather than people in their own right. (The real secret of Little Women‘s enduring popularity as a novel is its balance: Girls can reread it and identify with a different March sister at each stage of their childhood.) As damaging to the show’s dramatic flow as to its aesthetic texture, these disruptions are especially hard on Foster, an appealing actress with a sparky personality and a distinctively angular physical style (in Thoroughly Modern Millie she appeared be composed entirely of knees and elbows), whose modest voice was not made for this kind of emotional heavy haulage. Though perfectly at home on Broadway (where that first-act finale elicits huge bravos), the show’s depiction of Jo as a frenzied, belting demon seems hopelessly out of place in this story. The show itself, similarly, seems lost in the drafty hugeness of the Virginia, where the often charming family scenes are dwarfed by the high proscenium arch (emphasized by the metal scaffolding that frames Derek McLane’s otherwise attractive settings).
The pity of it is that, between seizures, so much of Little Women‘s reality has been established. Allan Knee’s script offers long passages of astutely condensed Alcott; Jason Howland’s pleasant music, inventively orchestrated by Kim Scharnberg, pulls contemporary shapes out of period waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles, bumpily but gamely supported by Mindi Dickstein’s uneven lyrics. And the cast, as always, offers many potential rescuers in addition to Foster: Maureen McGovern (who also gets one of those unfortunate power ballads) is a warm, patiently amused Marmee; Amy McAlexander (Amy), Jenny Powers (Meg), and Megan McGinnis (Beth) are distinctive enough to make you wish a little less time were spent overworking Jo; and Danny Gurwin makes an endearingly goofy-gangly Laurie. Cut down, unplugged, reshaped for a more intimate house, this Little Women might have been a little delight. How sad that, Broadway being Broadway, it’s been allowed to grow too big for its entirely anachronistic britches.