Jo March, the spirited center of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," is a perfect musical-theater heroine. She could be a distant cousin of such female independence icons as Nellie Forbush, Eliza Doolittle, Dolly Levi, Fanny Brice, Mame Dennis and more. And as played by Sutton Foster, Jo is a joy to watch in an otherwise lukewarm new musical version of Alcott's novel, which opened Sunday at Broadway's Virginia Theatre.
Foster, a Tony winner several seasons ago for "Thoroughly Modern Millie," works hard, very hard in fact, to lift the show, which is far too genteel for its own good. What entertainment it delivers is primarily in Foster's hands, and it is fortunate that this engaging, spunky performer is on stage for a good portion of the evening.
"Little Women," under the direction of Susan H. Schulman, is tasteful if plodding, with a thorough, straightforward book by Allan Knee and a pallid, unsurprising score by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein.
The musical, set mostly in New England during the Civil War, covers all the novel's highlights, focusing on the adventures of those March girls - Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy.
Jo is an exasperating know-it-all, appalling in her directness and determined to succeed as a writer, particularly as an author of what she calls "blood and guts" theatricals. There's an appealing gawkiness about Foster's wide-eyed performance that plays into Jo's insecurities about herself and her writing.
And the actress is one of those complete musical performers, at home in song, dance, comedy and drama. There doesn't seem to be anything she can't do. For example, at the end of Act 1, Foster is given one of those earsplitting anthems for young women that seem to be in fashion right now on Broadway. Think "Defying Gravity" from "Wicked" or "Once Upon a Time," the big number in "Brooklyn The Musical." Foster's first-act finale is called "Astonishing," and her delivery lives up to the song's title.
Maureen McGovern, as Marmee, the benevolent matriarch of the March family, is equally affecting. She has a beautiful voice, which Howland and Dickstein take full advantage of in the evening's most accomplished songs, "Here Alone" and "Days of Plenty."
Yet much of "Little Women" sounds dutiful rather than inspired with the three remaining sisters - played by Jenny Powers (Meg), Megan McGinnis (Beth) and Amy McAlexander (Amy) - shortchanged in the melody department.
But then so are the men, who appear to be something of an afterthought. The show, admittedly, is called "Little Women." Yet does the Jo-struck Professor Bhaer, played by John Hickok, need to be such a stammering dolt when confronted by love? And Danny Gurwin's Laurie, another of Jo's would-be conquests, also suffers from a bad case of simpering.
Designer Derek McLane has created several atmospheric settings, particularly his backdrops evoking the change of seasons, from the crisp, cold New England winter to a bower of white roses that captures the same scene in summer.
McLane also provides a massive, spooky attic, Jo's workplace, where her imagination is allowed to soar and where she does most of her writing.
"Little Women" has its heart in the right place and, for some, particularly those looking for family entertainment, its wholesome earnestness could be enough. Others will have to be content to savor the accomplishments of its star, who, indeed, does shine bright.
The surprising thing is that Louisa May Alcott's sweet, adolescent tear-jerker "Little Women" hasn't been made into a Broadway musical before: It had, after all, given rise to no fewer than four movie versions.
Having finally arrived last night at the Virginia Theater, the mystery remains. It really is a lovely story, full of simple, totally unsophisticated charm. Rodgers and Hammerstein could have crafted it into an endearing, enduring hit.
The present production, skillfully staged by Susan H. Schulman, is full of delightfully calculated performances, including an entrancing turn by its giddily attractive star, Sutton Foster as Alcott's deliciously hoydenish, proto-feminist heroine Jo.
So much for the good news. For, just as you can't make a good beef stew without plenty of flavorsome beef, you can't make a good Broadway musical, however appealing the seasoning of the story may be, without the right music.
And the score to "Little Women," with its Jason Howland music and Mindi Dickstein lyrics, is weak, generic and, when it's not unnoticeable, boring.
This effectively cuts the ground from under Allan Knee's decently adroit book - which neatly encapsulates the original novel even when it misses something of the natural period patina- itself based on a cleverly concise play originally staged by that excellent young people's theater, Theatreworks/USA.
Alcott's celebration of the Marches as a family unit, set in Concord, Mass., and New York City, during the Civil War and the years immediately after, is easy to mock, but better to love.
The aspirant writer Jo - a blissfully immodest autobiographical portrait of Alcott herself - dominates this all-female establishment (the father is away sewing as a chaplain in the Union Army) with a firmly crazy hand that unexpectedly stretches out to the various men in the story.
Following Alcott's master pattern, this new chamber musical has a complete cast of only 10: the four March girls, their wise mother, their eccentric aunt and the girls' various suitors.
Foster, who sprang to stardom in the otherwise mediocre "Thoroughly Modern Millie," again proves herself a gem. She belts more comfortably than she sings, and at times her tone touches the abrasive, but her acting is perfect and her personality is precisely that kind for which the overused word "charisma" was coined.
If it's actual singing you want, there's the far more muted presence of Maureen McGovern as Marmee, the brood's mother hen who sings like a lark.
The other sisters - Amy McAlexander appropriately and perkily obnoxious as Amy, Jenny Powers as a properly statuesque Meg and Megan McGinnis as a doomed Beth - are all fine, as is Janet Carroll as the rich and persnickety Aunt March.
Nor is the casting quality restricted to the distaff side. Neat portrayals are given by Danny Gunvin, a boisterous Laurie; Jim Weitzer as Meg's stalwart suitor and veteran Robert Stattel as crusty old Mr. Laurence.
So, with its modest but very appropriate period settings by Derek McLane and costumes by Catherine Zuber, there are certainly pleasing aspects to the evening.
But, as someone once demanded, "Where's the beef?"
Sutton Foster never merely walks when she can scamper in the new musical ''Little Women,'' which opened last night at the Virginia Theater. Playing Jo the tomboy in this perky, sketchy adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel of a New England girlhood, Ms. Foster creates a dizzyingly hyperkinetic creature who, were she living in the 21st century instead of the 19th, would probably be on heavy doses of Ritalin.
Admirers of Ms. Foster's performance as an ingenuous flapper in ''Thoroughly Modern Millie,'' for which she won a Tony Award, will be pleased to know that her level of pluckiness remains stratospherically high. ''I've got a fire in me,'' announces Jo, an ambitious aspiring writer. Indeed, she glows with a fever that practically scorches. Though Ms. Foster shows winning flashes of a previously undetected gift for fresh comic line readings, theatergoers not enamored of unstinting eagerness may find her energy less infectious than exhausting.
The same can be said of the overall experience of this ''Little Women,'' directed by Susan H. Schulman and featuring a book by Allan Knee, with songs by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein. Watching this shorthand account of four sisters growing up poor but honest during the Civil War is like speed reading Alcott's evergreen novel of 1868. You glean the most salient traits of the principal characters, events and moral lessons, but without the shading and detail that made these elements feel true to life in the book. (A more grandiose musical version of another girl's-growing-pains classic, ''Jane Eyre,'' suffered from similar shoehorning.)
Aside from Ms. Foster and John Hickok, who gives the evening's most relaxed performance as Jo's avuncular suitor, the cast members most often bring to mind an 1860's-themed American Girl doll. Like the young owners of such dolls, theatergoers willing to use their imaginations may be able to project a transparency suggesting animated flesh onto these effigies in period costume. But that would mean the audience would have to work even harder than the performers.
As Mr. Knee has structured his adaptation, this ''Little Women'' is less a family album of the four March sisters and their stalwart mother, Marmee (the pop balladeer Maureen McGovern), than a portrait of the artist as a young hoyden. Though Jo has always been the main attraction in any of the film and stage versions of the novel (especially as Katharine Hepburn played her in George Cukor's enchanting 1933 movie), here her literary ambition eclipses the tale's homier aspects.
Both the acts begin with sustained musical vignettes in which Jo, having left her home in Concord, Mass., to seek her fortune in New York City, acts out Gothic adventure stories she has written. Other cast members materialize in swashbuckling attire (the reliable Catherine Zuber did the costumes) to portray the characters Jo summons into being. And Derek McLane's nifty multitiered, prop-strewn set evokes a sort of novelist's workshop of the mind.
Presumably, this device is meant to reflect the fiction-teaching axiom that it is always best to write what you know. And it is in remembering her childhood in flashbacks that Jo discovers her true subject as an author and comes up with, well, ''Little Women.'' But for better or worse, it's the over-the-top, introductory fantasy sequences -- performed by Ms. Foster in a cyclone of gestures and grimaces -- that are the most vivid scenes. You can understand why Jo first chose ''blood and guts,'' as she puts it, over cardboard sentimentality.
The other March sisters seem to pass before your eyes like labeled luggage on a conveyor belt: Meg (Jenny Powers), the domestic one; Beth (Megan McGinnis), the quiet one; Amy (Amy McAlexander), the pretentious one. The same might be said of wise, dear Marmee; mean old Aunt March (Janet Carroll); crotchety old Mr. Laurence (Robert Stattel), the rich neighbor; his impish nephew, Laurie (Danny Gurwin); and Laurie's swoony tutor, Mr. Brooke (Jim Weitzer).
The novel's most fondly recalled set pieces are in place: Jo and Meg's first dance; Jo and Amy's falling out; the unfortunate conclusion of Jo and Laurie's one-sided romance. But they too seem to rush by in telegraphic haste, with a line tossed in here and there to let you know that the girls' father (whom we never meet) is a chaplain in the Union Army or that Beth and Jo are the closest of the sisters.
The effect is of calendar pages being torn off as they are in old movies to indicate the passage of time. (When Marmee asks, ''How did you all grow up so fast?,'' you share her sense of wonder.) Since the characters do not acquire full personalities, you don't feel emotionally invested in them. Even when Beth dies -- conforming to the fate reserved for virtuous, quiet siblings in 19th-century fiction -- it's hard to muster a tear. (Beth, we hardly knew ye!)
Beth is memorialized in a power ballad sung in a strong, lovely alto by Ms. McGovern (best known for the Top-40 hit ''The Morning After,'' from the 1972 movie ''The Poseidon Adventure''). There are several such ballads, which are of the sub-Lloyd Webber variety. Otherwise, Mr. Howland's score is brisk, sprightly and forgettable, though appealingly performed by a synthesizer-free acoustic orchestra, a rarity on Broadway these days. Ms. Dickstein's lyrics are largely so generic they could slide right into a variety of different musicals. (''Take a chance on me.'' ''I may be small, but I have giant plans.'')
The slim and supple Ms. Foster has a lot to carry on those twitchy shoulders. If ''Little Women'' does develop the following of young girls and their mothers the producers have targeted, it will be largely Ms. Foster's doing. Her Jo brings to mind another brass-larynxed misfit, Elphaba, the green-skinned witch created by Idina Menzel in the reigning schoolgirl favorite of musicals, ''Wicked.'' Jo even has an eardrum-quaking first-act curtain number like Elphaba's in ''Wicked.'' It is called ''Astonishing.'' But while Ms. Foster invests it with every ounce of her considerable skill and vigor, like so much of the show the song feels too ersatz to raise a single goosebump, much less astonish.