Literature’s usually a great place to find source material for solid musicals. From “My Fair Lady” to “Camelot,” on through to “Cats” and “Wicked” and beyond, there’s no shortage of beloved shows sourced in books. The trick comes in the adaptation’s ability to capture the magic of the original material in a form that feels both special and of the essence of the original piece; you can tell when it works, and when it falls short.
Bristol Riverside Theater’s undertaking of “Little Women,” based on Louisa May Alcott’s novel, is a little bit of both. You can’t deny that the charm of the cast and Alcott’s book shines through in what is ultimately an enjoyable evening, if some of the structural problems inherent in the adaptation are taken with a grain of salt.
For those unfamiliar with this American classic, “Little Women” centers on the adventures of the four March sisters — Amy, Jo, Beth, and Meg — in Concord, Massachusetts, during the Civil War. With their father at war, the four sisters are raised by their mother, lovingly called Marmee (Leslie Becker), with ample assistance from their Aunt Josephine. Each sister has her own particular dreams and wants, and Jo’s desire to find her fortune as a writer takes her to New York City, where she finds her fortune and her place as the centerpiece of both the book and the show.
For the most part, the production acquits itself well of touching on the expected moments of this ever-popular coming-of-age novel. Jennie Eisenhower’s Jo is charismatic, strong-voiced, and well-suited to strike the delicate balance between adventure-seeking and empowered without trundling over into tomboy territory. Her considerable charm is the glue that holds the evening together. And this cast, as a whole, is lovely and talented. Amy (Kara Dombrowski) is full of vindictive pluck. Meg (Elisa Matthews) has a wonderful sense of three-dimensional believability in what could raise an eyebrow in this enlightened age — her characterization is so clear that her devotion to the family she wants to raise is given a sense of life that keeps it from feeling outdated. And of course, there’s poor Beth (Kim Carson), whose fate is foreshadowed from the first scene, and, as written in the original novel, seems like a bit of a plot device as opposed to a real characer. Carson’s portrayal, however, gives Beth a very real strength, particularly in a wonderful duet with James Van Treuren’s Mr. Laurence. It actually hurts when her exit comes, which is no small feat.
The titular Little Women of this production shine best, in fact, when they are paired up with the men of the cast; Stephen Schellhardt’s Laurie and Steven Nicholas’ John Brooke are a perfect pair of foils, equal parts awkward and adorable, for our ladies. And Professor Bhaer (Michael Sharon), Jo’s German (and germane) housemate, adds considerably to Jo’s development as the most unlikely and perfect of suitors. In the moments when we’re allowed to let Alcott’s book really do the heavy lifting, “Little Women” is enchanting. The moments of flirtation, growth, laughter, and connection are an awful lot of fun to watch.
I’m also pretty sure that Cathy Newman’s Aunt March is worth the price of admission alone; she steals the show, word-by-word, every scene she is in, with equal parts steel, magic, and sharp-tongued wit.
While there are some wonderful performances — and it’s hard to go wrong with the book this team chose to adapt — the problems of this show come in that it is a musical. But here’s the thing: while the voices of the cast are strong and fine and their interpretations excellent, you won’t be leaving the theater humming a single tune. There are beautiful musical moments, to be sure — at the top of each act, the entire cast doubles as characters from Jo’s racy stories in a bit of over-the-top musical theater adventure, which is well-played and fun to watch — but as a whole, it’s not clear to me why this needed to be a musical. The songs don’t come out of the action naturally, and often feel shoehorned into moments that would have done wonderfully without a song.
It feels very much like someone had the brilliant idea that “Little Women” as a musical would make some serious money, and that’s what happened, without much thought as to how the music would be integrated. In its brief 2005 Broadway run, that was a major criticism levied at the score, and it unfortunately holds true here, as well. With all of that said, it’s a lovely way to spend a girls’ night out or with members of your family (I’m sure that scheduling opening weekend around Mother’s Day was no accident). Go in with a deep love of the book and the characters, and I’m certain you’ll leave happy.
“Little Women,” Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through Sunday, May 22. Musical based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel. $34 to $42. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.