The setup: After surviving to adulthood (no mean feat for anyone born in 1832), Louisa May Alcott shunned marriage and motherhood and struck out on her own to minor literary success (with A Long Fatal Love Chase and other potboilers favored by readers of her era), partly to help support her poverty-stricken family of origin. She won real fame for her largely autobiographical novel Little Women, which was followed by several sequels.
Chances are, if you're an American-raised woman, you've read this book. It's a sentimental, charming story of a close family with one fiercely independent member who injects needed verve into the whole thing: "tomboy Jo," based on Alcott herself, who also becomes an author. Lucky for Hale Centre Theatre audiences, the character of Jo is also the redeeming factor of the embarrassing musical based on Little Women, and Hale's Jo, Sydney Hawes, leads a hard-working cast through a marathon of weirdness like a fascinating stranger at a long, boring party.
The execution: There's a compelling mystery at the heart of this script, but it has nothing to do with the plot you'll see on stage. The big question is why so little of a beloved public-domain novel, whose author's voice is most of what makes it remarkable, made it into the play. The dialogue's been stripped of its distinctive tone -- though that's understandable in light of how few episodes of the book's plot are present.
Naturally, a full-length book must be trimmed for stage or film, and fans will differ in their opinions of how well it's been done. But I'm not even that crazy about LW (and it appears as though the version I read as a child had been condensed), and I still terribly miss little touchstones like the ruined gloves and the horsehair-covered pillow.
Of course, milking action out of a domestic idyll will result in some changes, and a character who was kind all along on the page, for example, will come to life more dramatically if he starts out crotchety. But this adaptation is ruthlessly ham-fisted, adding scene after scene that was invented by mediocre playwrights and not envisioned by Alcott at all. Best to pretend you don't know the story at all, if you do. (But if you haven't read it, please don't assume the novel is anything like Jo's childhood memories as presented on stage here.) Hawes' energy and gumption carry the proceedings through a confusing and twisted framing device that begins with adult Jo trying to sell stories and then flashes back and forth.
So it becomes a story about a writer from the get-go. Because those are box-office gold. Not only that, author Jo winds up writing not the Little Women so many people know and love, but the oddly adulterated version of it that is this play. The unmemorable score is not actually as tedious or annoying as it's reputed to be. If your brain subconsciously seeks meter and rhyme, the songs might feel painful, but the prerecorded accompaniment is pleasant (and not played at the breakneck pace Hale often employs).
Hawes' voice, in particular, is a powerful instrument that doesn't always fare well when amplified, but other musical moments are more fun, especially when piano-loving Beth (Amanda Crawley) and Mr. Laurence (Dan Stroud) playfully duet on a ditty, "Off to Massachusetts," that's supposed to be a popular song of the day.
Bryan Stewart, who was so riveting in Damn Yankees last summer, is adorably virile, in that clumsy intellectual geek-crush fashion, as Professor Fritz Bhaer, who eventually wins Jo's heart. And the costumes, by Corrin Dietlein, and Cambrian James' dizzying array of historically and age-appropriate hairstyles on the growing girls are lovely and impressive. The verdict: Small children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with serious medical conditions are advised to consider skipping this endurance-sapping ride that's interrupted with a tantalizing intermission after which the play resumes. However, if you can set aside both your literary and theatrical snobbery, this Little Women is nicely executed and constitutes one of those good old-fashioned wholesome entertainments for which people seem to clamor.
Little Women continues through Saturday, October 12, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 West Page Avenue in Gilbert. For tickets, $16 and $26, visit www.haletheatrearizona.com or call 480-497-1181.