Friday, December 5, 2014

Review: “A Little Princess”

Published in The News Tribune, Dec. 5, 2014

The girls from Mrs. Minchin's school. Lauren Nance as Sara and Allyson Jacobs-Lake as Becky in center. Photo by Kat Dollarhide.
The exuberant musical A Little Princess at Tacoma Musical Playhouse is based on the serialized novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1888. There have been many updated versions, including at least five movie versions and five television shows. The musical by Andrew Lippa and Brian Crawley premiered in 2004. It has not yet made it to Broadway and could use some revisions before it does, because as it now stands the book is cumbersome. The music, on the other hand, is strong and lively, with powerful and heart wrenching ballads and lively African music filled with drumming. The music and dancing (directed and choreographed by Jon Douglas Rake and musically directed by Jeffrey Stvrtecky), along with a fabulous set designed by Bruce Haasl and dramatic lighting by John Chenault, make this show into an exciting spectacle.

James Walters as Cpt. Crewe and Lauren Nance as Sara. Photo by Kat Dollarhide.
Set mostly at a girls’ school in Victorian London, the story is Dickensian with hints of The Secret Garden, also by Burnett. Sara Crewe (Lauren Nance) is the son of Captain Crewe (James Walters), a British adventurer in Africa. Captain Crewe leaves for a trip to the forbidden city of Timbuktu after sending Sara boarding school for girls in London run by the evil Miss Minchin (Dana Johnson), where she is alternately treated like a despised servant and the little princess she imagines herself to be. She escapes the drudgery of her life in the school by imagining herself back in Africa with the help of the spirit doll she has carried with her to London through which she conjures and dreams of the people she has left behind.

The British in Africa at the time were colonialists whose treatment of the indigenous people was, at best, paternalistic, and it bothered me that this was barely acknowledged in the play. The relationship between Captain Crewe and the native people seemed to be that of master and servant, and with the single exception of his servant, Pasko (Eric Clausell), the Africans in the cast serve little purpose other than as colorful musical props. Their singing and dancing is outstanding, but as human characters they have little soul or depth because their stories are not part of this show. Pasko speaks of Captain Crewe as the father he never had, putting an exclamation point on the captain’s paternalistic relationship with the Africans, something we might forgive Burnett in her turn-of-the-century novel, but is a big flaw in Crawley and Lippa’s 2004 retelling of the tale.

Nance is believable as the girl with the undying spirit who never gives up hope. Her singing is strong, and she has a way of making the audience pull for her. It would have been nice if they could have found a younger girl to play the part (Sara turns 13 while at the school), but I would be hard pressed to think of anyone who could have played the part more convincingly or with more heart.

Walters as Sara’s father comes across as a Howard Keel kind of character – strong and reserved until he opens his mouth to sing. It is hard to imagine this is the same actor who played the monster in TMP’s Young Frankenstein.

The most enjoyable character on stage might well be Pasko as delightfully played by Clausell, whose loose-limbed dance moves are a joy to watch.

Also outstanding are Johnson as Miss Minchin and 17-year-old Rachel Roewer as the nasty school girl, Lavinia.

For audiences saturated with a seemingly endless season of A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, this is a refreshingly different kind of holiday show. And those who want their Christmas shows to have feel-good endings … well, this one is right up there with the schmaltziest of all.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 21
WHERE: Tacoma Musical Playhouse at The Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave., Tacoma
TICKETS: $20-$29
INFORMATION: 253-565-6867,

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