Hoary advertising claims to the contrary, that which is new is frequently not improved. Take, for example, Jacqueline Goldfinger's odd 2010 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, Little Women, which closes at N.C. State's University Theatre this week.
Playwrights usually make Jo, the precocious, willful tomboy and future writer of the March clan of Concord, Mass., its central character. That's been the case in three regional productions over the last decade (including the memorable 2004 Broadway musical version starring Sutton Foster, whose out-of-town tryouts took place at Duke).
It's understandable: Jo is widely read as Alcott's alter ego in a semiautobiographical account of an educated, relatively well-off family's reversal of fortunes, a turn that leaves its women—mother Marmee and sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy—to face the hardships of the Civil War alone. Dramatists and fight choreographers are surely drawn to the ripping yarns of adventure that Jo writes; their blood and thunder, and abrupt conclusions, only underline the far less colorful realities of a family having to scrape through in a time of war. Plus, Jo is appealing to modern sensibilities because of her struggles with the gender roles of her time as she tries to find her own literary voice.
But Goldfinger deliberately distances us from Jo's point of view and, unfortunately, the flights of fancy that fuel Jo's writing career, in effect arguing that Little Women is more important as a chronicle of a family than any one character. Goldfinger's version may provide us with a few more facts. It certainly leaves us with a lot less of the novel's charm.
About those facts, however: Goldfinger's script is a far-too-dutiful and, at times, compacted recital of plot points that abruptly ends in the middle of Alcott's novel. A plot thread or two reeled in from the last half of the book is rearranged among events prior to Jo's big break in publishing—which, itself, is rewritten nearly beyond recognition. Saddled with a script that repeatedly sacrifices depth for breadth (including a stingy half-page devoted to a significant post-funeral scene), the moments in this brusque production more frequently feel depicted than fully inhabited.
Director Allison Bergman coaxes a credible performance from Jordan Manning as Jo, and DeShawn Brown proves a suave Laurie, next-door neighbor and possible love interest. David Johnson's comically awkward take on John Brooke, clumsy suitor to Leanna Hall's radiant Meg, was rewarding. Less believable: Kathleen Caldwell's work as Amy and a too-young Kailey Harris as the family matriarch.
In Jayme Mellema's ingenious stage design, the family parlor of the March's house is set in a house-size cutout section of a stage-wide screen. Lauren Caddick's projected illustrations from vintage greeting cards (like an old, winking man in the moon; images of Christmas) provide a clever, atmospheric context to the scenes, although their frequent changes were sometimes distracting.
Repeatedly, this show hints at a world quite different from our own. Why is it so outré for a teenage girl simply to visit a next-door neighbor, as Jo does in the opening scene? What is actually in the nature of this family or its times that children are seriously instructed to improve themselves by undertaking their own version of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress—and given journals in which to record their "journey"?
These answers and others are left for an adaptation more interested in analyzing Alcott's tale than simply covering as much of it as possible.