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Sutton Foster breathes fresh life into a classic 137-year-old tale

Susan Schulman’s “Little Women” could hardly have gone wrong with the vocal chops of Maureen McGovern as the family matriarch, Marmee, and Sutton Foster mugging to great effect as the heroine Jo.

“Blood and guts.” That’s what tomboy Jo March loves to write about in “Little Women: The Musical,” the new Broadway adaptation of the beloved 1868 Louisa May Alcott literary classic.

“That’s what the world wants,“ she asserts.

Some Broadway producers are of a like mind—when not literally relying on blood and guts (as in the thirsty acrobatic vampires in “Dracula”), then certainly favoring plenty of razzle and dazzle (for example, the massive mechanical wizards and dragons in “Wicked”).

Lucky for us, the producers of “Little Women,” along with director Susan Schulman (“The Secret Garden”), hail from the heart and soul school of musicals, eschewing such heady contrivances.

For “Little Women” is of a rare breed, an unassuming Broadway chamber musical with a mere ten actors, all in top form. There’s no chorus, and what little dancing there is occurs organically. And while the modestly impressive sets do move, they are not designed to garner applause themselves. Electronic synthesizers have been banished from the orchestra pit.

The production was capitalized at about one-third the cost of the overblown spectacle, “Wicked.” With no sexual references, violence or foul language, the show is ideal for families with little women of their own.

Besides, who needs the trappings of glitz when you’ve got double-barrel firepower in the form of Sutton Foster as the heroine, Jo, and Maureen McGovern as the matriarch, Marmee?

Though many liberties have been taken and far too many details omitted, fans of the original novel will not be disappointed. The show jumps back and forth between scenes of the March family in Concord, Massachusetts and those from a later period in a boarding house in New York City, where headstrong Jo has come to seek a publisher for her racy stories. She is unfazed by the 22 rejections received so far.

Life is tough for the March girls, especially with their father, an army chaplain in the Civil War, constantly away. Early on, they pledge to remain “solid as a fortress,” which, of course, is a foolish pipe dream that dissipates quickly.

Meg (Jenny Powers) is the eldest who marries the first chance she gets. Jo is a feisty feminist who “doesn’t give a fig about society” and seeks her fortune in New York. Beth (Megan McGinnis) is the selfless, frail one who succumbs to scarlet fever. The youngest, Amy (Amy McAlexander), embraces fashion and flees to Europe.

Men figure into the story as well. At a ball, Meg meets her future husband Mr. Brooke (Jim Weitzer), and Jo dances with Laurie (Danny Gurwin), a neighbor clearly smitten with her. Then there’s the stodgy Professor Bhaer (John Hickok) in New York, who also takes a shine to Jo, though they seem to have nothing in common.

Great pains have been taken to ensure this sentimental tale steers clear of mawkishness. The alternately sweet and tragic moments are counterbalanced with many jokes with a decidedly contemporary twist.

Sometimes the radiant Foster, gifted in physical comedy, mugs for easy laughs reminiscent of a Carol Burnett parody sketch, albeit a very good one. When she clods down the wooden stairs, clearly uncomfortable in her evening dress, and groans, “I’m not built for gowns,” the audience roars.

Even Amy jumps into the act. When the irrepressible Jo returns home with shorn locks, she quips, as only a catty younger sister could, “Your hair was your best feature.”

Set designer Derek McLane has assembled a stunning, cavernous attic-refuge for the girls, a web of wooden beams dotted with flickering sconces. The gorgeous Winslow Homer-esque backdrops of outsized seascapes and meadows mesh perfectly with the period.

Considering the popular film versions of “Little Women” starring Katherine Hepburn and Winona Ryder, Foster had some big shoes to fill. Yet she has no trouble, creating a Jo others will be compared to for years to come. Foster, who won the 2002 Tony Award for her performance in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” is sure to grab another nomination this year.

The vocalist juggernaut Maureen McGovern, forever linked to the Oscar-winning “The Morning After” from “The Poseidon Adventure,” has recently starred on Broadway in “Pirates of Penzance,” “Nine,” and countless other shows. And don’t forget film cameos in “The Towering Inferno” and “Airplane!”.

According to Playbill magazine, “Little Women” was originally conceived with exceedingly more razzle and dazzle, with a cast of 42 and a flashy score. When it was clear that approach was not working, Jason Howland stepped down as producer to try his hand at composing, and Mindi Dickstein, also a novice, was summoned to write the lyrics. The chemistry between these two creative forces was so magical they even got married.

Alan Knee, who wrote the book and is credited with helping to create the show, shepherded the story through its many incarnations. During the arduous evolution process, Howland wrote well over 100 tunes for the production, 20 of which survive in the final version.

The result is quite pleasing, if unexceptional. The traditional melodies boast thoroughly modern accents, which echo the forward-thinking bent of the vivacious heroine. The songs are sweet without cloying, though I did wince at the clunky rhyming of “Concord” and “unconquered.”

One jolly number, “Off to Massachuse­tts,” with it’s mannered dance steps, is straight out of Mary Poppins. The beautifully angelic duet, “Some Things are Meant to Be” has McGinnis matching Foster note for note, no easy feat. And McGovern’s soaring ballad, “Days of Plenty,” is worth the price of admission alone.

Toward play’s end, during a low point after losing Beth and the will to write, Jo discards her “blood and guts” literary conceit and finds her true voice. As everyone knows, she winds up writing the intimately straightforward biographical account that Louisa May Alcott published so many years ago.

With this quietly delightful new musical stage adaptation, her timeless tale lives on.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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