The March sisters and Marmee come vividly to life in the new Broadway-bound musical version of Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 coming-of-age novel Little Women, presented Tuesday-Sunday through Oct. 31st in Duke University’s Reynolds Industries Theater by Theater Previews at Duke, in association with Randall Wreghitt, Dani Davis, Ken Gentry, Chase Mishkin, Ruben Brache, and Lisa Vioni.

Indeed, my good friend Raleigh, NC real-estate developer and theater maven Marshall Stewart, who used to live and work in New York and haunt the city’s theatrical district, was willing to bet me a dinner at the Angus Barn that Little Women: The Musical, with libretto by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, would not only find success on the Great White Way, but (at minimum) win the Tony Award® for Best Musical, as well as a second Best Actress Tony for Sutton Foster. As for Marshall, he voted with his wallet, buying tickets for the Saturday evening performance for himself and his daughter after attending the show’s official opening night on Friday with me.

Sutton Foster, who received a well-deserved 2002 Tony Award for her exuberant performance as Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie, is a regular ball-of-fire as spunky Jo March, a teenaged tomboy who delights in writing blood-and-guts stories and adapting them for herself and her three sisters to perform for their Concord, Massachusetts neighbors. (These swashbuckling and sword-waving melodramatic little shows within the show are one of the great treats of this musical version of Little Women.)

With her superlative singing and fine flair for comedy, Foster warbles and clowns her way to a solid-gold performance that may very well win Marshall Stewart his bet. It will also boost the show’s chances to win Best Musical honors.

Tony-nominated director Susan H. Schulman, who staged the award-winning 1991 Broadway debut production of The Secret Garden, plus crowd-pleasing Broadway revivals of The Sound of Music and Sweeney Todd and a charming presentation of Violet Off Broadway, superbly orchestrates the humor and the pathos in Louisa May Alcott’s perennially popular autobiographical story of life on the home front during the American Civil War. The delightful dances devised by choreographer Michael Lichtefeld also number among this marvelous musical’s strong points.

Set designer Derek McLane has done a simply magnificent job of creating the airy attic and other areas of the middle-class March home and a middling New York boarding house, lighting designer Kenneth Posner has expertly illuminated the show, costume designer Catherine Zuber and wig and hair designer Lazaro Arenciba have dressed the cast in a breathtaking array of period fashions and hairstyles, and sound designer Peter Hylenski has carefully ensured that the dialogue and lyrics and musical director Andrew Wilder’s spirited orchestra are equally distinguishable.

The four March sisters the “little women” of the book’s title are memorably impersonated not only by the irrepressible Sutton Foster, but by Jenny Powers as the romantic but sensible Meg, Megan McGinnis as kind-hearted but sickly Beth, and Amy McAlexander as beautiful but jealous and insecure Amy. There are not enough superlatives to give these four fine young actresses their due. Suffice it to say that they each, in their own way, give a compelling characterization that alternately provokes laughter and tears.

Maureen McGovern is delightful as Marmee, the March family matriarch who heroically struggles to make ends meet while father is away fighting the war; and John Hickok is charming as Professor Fritz Bhaer, the introspective German immigrant who finds a new life (and a new love) in Jo March. Jo and Fritz are both boarders at Mrs. Kirk’s boarding house in New York City, where Jo has gone to try to her stories published. At first, a reluctant audience for Jo’s hyperbolic prose, Fritz becomes, first, her mentor and, later, much, much more.

Danny Gurwin is sweet as Laurie, Jo’s handsome Concord suitor whose average intellect never quite captures Jo’s imagination (or her heart); and Jim Weitzer is terrific as Laurie’s patriotic but somewhat formal tutor, John Brooke, who gradually unthaws under Meg’s melting gaze. Robert Stattel cuts a fine figure as Mr. Laurence, a prickly bearded aging bear of a man who has all the material wealth that he could ever want, but still mourns some personal losses too deep for tears; and Janet Carroll doubles delightfully as wealthy and oh-so-proper Aunt March, who bestows her financial largess first on Jo and later on Amy, and as Mrs. Kirk, the nosy Irish-immigrant landlady with a delicious Irish brogue.

Little Women: The Musical, which begins previews on Broadway Dec. 2 at the Virginia Theatre and is scheduled to open there on Jan. 23, 2005, is a must-see musical, a rare opportunity for Triangle theatergoers to see the out-of-town tryout of a musical headed for Broadway. If it takes home a whole shelf of 2005 Tony Awards, please remember that Marshall Stewart and yours truly told you it would and eat hearty.

Theater Previews at Duke presents Little Women: The Musical Tuesday-Thursday, Oct. 19-21 and 26-28, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 22 and 29, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 23 and 30, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 24, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 31, at 2 p.m. in Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke’s West Campus in Durham, North Carolina. $25-$35, with $5 student and group discounts. 919/ 684-4444 or Theater Previews at Duke: Internet Broadway Database: University of Virginia (About Louisa May Alcott Page): University of Virginia (Little Women Home Page):