A Little Princess
The ins and outs of that profoundly emotional bond that ties together daughters and fathers ripples through a classic story from Victorian times, striking a chord that a modern audience can feel.
An easy-on-the-ears, lush musical version by composer Andrew Lippa ("I Am Harvey Milk," "The Wild Party" and "Big Fish," currently on Broadway) with a smartly written book and lyrics by Brian Crawley ("Violet") offers a new, more richly psychological version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel about riches to poverty and on to a truer wealth, A Little Princess The sprightly musical is getting a superlative New England premiere from Fiddlehead Theatre Company through Dec. 8.
Fiddlehead artistic director Meg Fofonoff, who staged "Ragtime" in Dorchester’s beautifully renovated Strand Theater last season, again spares no expense. The lavish "A Little Princess" with its a 13-piece ensemble under the able baton of Balint Varga, and a sparkling cast clad in sumptuous period costumes (Jennifer Tremblay) brings a Broadway-like slick production to Columbia Road.
A reluctant Sara Crewe (Sirena Abalian), she’s only seven in the original story but here ten or 12, boards a ship from balmy West Africa where she has grown up to go to a boarding school in chilly London. As with every good British novel of this period, weather accentuates the mood of the story. It is 1838.
Abalian has a wonderful voice and not only carries a tune delightfully but interprets it with acting chops ---this is a cast of outstanding singers, by the way. Sara’s a romantic spirit, imagining herself as a princess at times, feisty, warm hearted, and very much the little soldier when her life is turned upside down, all of which Abalian believably conveys. Her solo "Live Out Loud," sung early on in the show, perfectly establishes her character.
The motherless child has only known a parent’s love from her father, and their familial love runs deep. Sending his beloved little Sara away is not a decision Captain Crewe (Jared Troilo) would ordinarily have made. When matinee idol handsome Troilo, in a sturdy performance, sings "Home By Christmas" we empathize with his dilemma.
A loyal British subject, however, he is on special assignment from the queen herself (Liliane Klein) to make his way to the fabulous city of Timbuktu in the Saharan desert. There he is to establish business ties with the British Empire and the mix of Arabs and Africans who live there. Klein, very royal in her sweet but aristocratic portrayal as a less imperious Queen Victoria than the history books suggest, will make everything well in her own quaint way later on.
There are lots of snarls getting to a happy ending, however.
Along the way, Captain Crewe’s been ordered to squash any examples he finds of the United States based slave trading which was made illegal in 1807 by the British government but continues to flourish in outlying spots, including the River Niger which is nearby Timbuktu. That’s a task in itself.
Sara also leaves behind a nana, who is sort of a Mother Africa, the regal Aljana (the beautifully voiced Aubin Wise), whom Sara names her doll after as a sort of spiritual guide, while Captain Crewe’s right hand man Pasko (Jared Dixon) accompanies Captain Crewe on the trek into the bush. A lyrical singer, Dixon’s sweetly sung "Captain Crewe" expressing his feelings for a man he regards as his father, adds another pearl to this story of the importance of familial love.
The original novel was considered a ’raj story’ because it moved back and forth from Victorian England to colonial India; but this musical version resets the story to Africa, which allows for both a different perspective and a bright pallete that contrasts with the more somber London. It also allows for lively choreography from Matt Romeo that is African dance based and carried off by an exuberant ensemble of eight hard working dancers who give the show much of its punch. Stepping to a more restrained beat is a second ensemble of dancers showing the London side of things, also well choreographed by Romeo and well danced.
However, the back and forth between the locales creates a serious production problem, with the stage darkened while set pieces are changed every time the story moves from London to West Africa and vice versa. That segue issue would have to be resolved before the show could successfully move on to Broadway.
To say that the head mistress of the finishing school Miss Minchin (Shana Dirik) dislikes little Sara on sight would be putting it mildly. A strict disciplinarian, the school head is a mean one, right up there with Disney’s Cruella De Vil. Yet there are two sides to this coin, as revealed by Dirik’s renditions of "Lucky," where she envies Sara’s great wealth but also a father’s love she didn’t have. Dirik’s stage presence leaps over the footlights. It would take a terrifically cute puppy or kitten wandering on stage by mistake to pull your eyes away.
There’s also peer bullying at this Dicksonian establishment with a vicious girl of the sort that tormented Shirley Temple type heroines in the movies, the haughty Lavinia (Tori Hainlein) leading the pack. Maggie Budzyna, Ceci Cipullo, Teresa Lawlor, Jessica Lewis, and Lilla Smythe, all of them individualized and well portrayed, make up the rest of the girls at the school. There’s a nice turn from Steven Kosakow as the solicitor who bears interesting news when-ever he appears at the boarding school.
On the softer side in the boarding school administration is Miss Amelia, Miss Minchin’s far sweeter sister who, while much cowed by the more authoritarian sister, manages to bring some light into the dark corridors of the school. Bridget Beirne is perfect as the often flustered Amelia who gains more fiber as the story goes on. Also a bright spot is the mistreated, over-worked scullery maid, the cockney orphan Becky, whose energy and loyalty to Sara who has befriended her is gratifying (played with pluck and bounce by Carly Kastel). An evocative set with its garret attic and the spires of London seen across the nearby roofs is from Anthony Phelps with wonderfully atmospheric lighting from Winston G. Limauge.
Lippa and Crawley’s "A Little Princess," which debuted at Theatre Works of Palo Alto in the summer of 2004, still has a way to go in its development before a Tony Award judge would crown it. Meg Fofonoff’s outstanding and enjoyable production at the Strand, however, gives that creative team the opportunity to see where they can make those judicious alterations.
Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s production of the Andrew Lippa/Brian Crawley musical A Little Princess, based on the Frances Hodgson Burnett children’s novel. Through Dec. 8. At the 1405-seat historic Strand Theatre, a few minutes off Rte 93 and on city bus lines, at 543 Columbia Rd.. For more info please phone 617-229-6494 or go on-line to www.fiddleheadtheatre.com.