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MARK KITAOKA/CARLA BEFERA PUBLIC RELATIONS From left, Arielle Fishman, Emily Koch, Sharon Rietkerk and Julia Belanoff star as the March sisters in TheatreWorks' adapotation of "Little Women."

Settle into the front parlor of the March sisters, and you are guaranteed a heartwarming evening in the company of four "Little Women."

From its precocious characters to its three-hankie tragedies, TheatreWorks' musical version of Louisa May Alcott's cherished novel may well be the perfect fare for a multigenerational family treat. If the 19th-century coming-of-age tale veers into unabashedly sentimental territory, perhaps that's what we yearn for during the holidays, a chance to relive the giddy and tearful nature of being young and innocent of the ravages of time. Sensitively directed by Robert Kelley, this lovely "Little Women" holds court through Jan. 4 at Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre.

Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein's score and Joe Ragey's set are both pretty as a picture, which is a strength and a weakness here. While the music is uniformly tuneful and delicate, it's also a tad on the bland side and doesn't quite fit the depth and nuance of Alcott's characters, who are as flawed as they are irresistible. The charms of this period piece, from Fumiko Bielefeldt's dainty hoop skirts to the lively performances, would be even more potent if the songs had more punch.

Still, writer Allan Knee has a sure and economical hand with the material, capturing the centerpieces of the story without lingering in its details.

Alcott based the story on her own life story and there's no denying the earnestness and simplicity of her narrative. From the unshakable nature of the sisterly bond to the horrors of unexpected loss, "Little Women" mingles truth with nostalgia.

These four sisters mean the world to each other. There's the ladylike Meg (Sharon Rietkerk), the gentle-hearted Beth (Julia Belanoff), the pouty Amy (Arielle Fishman) and the unstoppable Jo (Emily Koch), the sister destined to make her mark on the world or die trying. Over the course of Alcott's intimate epic, their little family is tested at every turn. Their father almost loses his life in the Civil War. Their mother (a formidable Elizabeth Ward Land) feeds the family on pennies. One sister steals another's beau. Another sister dies too young.

Koch radiates spunk as Jo, a daring spirit dedicated to becoming a "blood and guts" writer in an age when women were supposed to be contented with doilies and lace.

Koch captures the heroine's pluck with a full-throttle performance that only occasionally goes a bit overboard. Her exuberance makes songs like "Astonishing" and "The Fire Within Me" memorable. It's Jo's fearless attitude toward life that has made this novel so adored through the decades.

The other characters are painted in quick brushtrokes in this adaptation, but some make a mark.

Belanoff gilds Beth with a touching vulnerability. Matt Dengler plays Laurie with just the right boyish flair. Ashland veteran Richard Farrell is wonderfully crotchety as the foreboding neighbor Mr. Laurence. Elizabeth Palmer seems to channel Dame Judi Dench as the withering Aunt March.

If the romances that crisscross this tale lack chemistry in this staging, Christopher Vettel carves out several poignant moments as Professor Bhaer. His staid routine upended by the indomitable Jo, Bhaer erupts in flustered song with "How I Am." Vettel nails the awkward surprise of a middle-aged man hurtling head-first into love for the first time.

The professor finds himself swept away by these "Little Women" and their gumption -- and he's certainly not the only one.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza and follow her at www.twitter.com/KarenDSouza4.

'little women'

Book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, presented by TheatreWorks

Through: Jan. 4
Where: Lucie Stern
Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto
Running time: 2 hours,
45 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $19-$79,
650-463-1960,
www.theatreworks.org