Jo March is a heroine well suited to musical theatre. She pulses with enthusiasm; she’s obsessed with the dramatic; she’s just a tiny bit full of herself. “I am bursting with energy,” Jo sings in this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel. And so is Lydia White’s compelling performance as the March girl who wants to live more than the life that 19th-century society has ascribed to her.
Bronagh Lagan’s production – at the play’s London premiere – is fired with charm, and it’s Jo’s relationship with her gentlest sister that’s most touchingly rendered, thanks to Anastasia Martin’s lovely turn as Beth. Beth’s duet with neighbour-cum-benefactor Mr Laurence over that precious piano of his is one of the highlights of Jason Howland’s score. Meanwhile Marmee, the girls’ inspiring mother, is given a powerful voice of her own in this version, and beautifully sung by Savannah Stevenson.
The fact that a show that made its Broadway debut 16 years ago hasn’t made it to London sooner does, however, hint at a few problems. One is the narrative pacing of Allan Knee’s book, which rather strips the other siblings of any meaningful development: one moment Meg is meeting John Brooke, the next she has twins. As for Sev Keoshgerian’s timid and slightly gauche Laurie, he’s barely spent any stage time with Jo before he’s proposing to her.
The musical treatment, meanwhile, amplifies the source material’s sentimentality to the extent that it’s constantly threatening to push the needle into twee. Some of the most enjoyable moments are the ones where Lagan goes all out for laughs that puncture the prevailing earnestness. Amy and Laurie’s proposal announcement (“The Most Amazing Thing”) offers welcome comic relief amid the maudlin aftermath of you-know-who’s passing, and the scenes at the start of each half where Jo acts out her “blood and guts” stories – with the cast inhabiting her characters behind her in a glorious celebration of melodrama – are wonderful fun. Which makes sense, as this is very much the musical of How Jo Became a Writer. And while White does a sterling job with it, it’s a shame that we don’t get more of the Little Women.