There are a number of musical adaptations of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel A Little Princess in the works, some of them from talents as acclaimed as David Zippel and Andrew Lippa. The first of these to arrive in New York has just opened at the Wings Theatre, but it bears a somewhat less distinguished pedigree, and sets a standard the upcoming versions won't have much trouble surpassing.
To best understand what this version is like, imagine an enterprising author rewriting Annie as an American folk musical in the British pop-opera mold, filling in the gaps with insights from Cliff's Notes of Burnett's book. This show, with music and lyrics by Mel Atkey and book and direction by Robert Sickinger (of O Pioneers! fame), makes about that much sense and delves just about as deep.
The story has been reset from London to America, and young Sara Crewe is now the daughter of a wealthy landowner who sends her to Miss Minchin's school in Washington City while he goes off to fight the Civil War. Her father, dedicated to giving his daughter (and her school) all the best, is soon reported to have died in battle, and the previously tolerated Sara is made to live as a servant in the attic, working for her keep.
Fine - there are still some dramatic possibilities with this. But in execution, the story has been so watered down, they can never come to fruition. Sara's good deeds and kindly manner are primarily represented in her behavior toward another scullery girl, but her interactions with the other students are mostly limited to helping the French teacher give them a lesson in conjugation and bearing their taunts when her father's money has evaporated.
We never get to know Sara, mostly because she's written with so little personality. As a result, her impact on those around her is visibly nil, which undercuts one of Sara's most important traits in Burnett's novel. Sickinger further lessens the story's impact by reconfiguring the ending to be more family friendly at the expense of what sense and heart the show may have had. Real emotions, whether joy, pain, or anything in between, are given short shrift in Sickinger's libretto for the musical.
They fare little better in the score, primarily composed of either wisps of composition that make no impression whatsoever or overblown larger numbers intended as showstoppers (none of which really are). There's a French lesson more than a little reminiscent of "Do Re Mi" from The Sound of Music, a set of "Miss Hannigan" songs for Miss Minchin, two inconsequential songs for an inconsequential romantic subplot, and even two completely extraneous diegetic songs for a secondary character of dubious connection to the story. The two biggest numbers, "Carry On" and "Take Away," suggest the Simon/Norman musicalization of The Secret Garden and the finale of Les Miserables respectively (though the latter song is most distinguished here by being led by Abraham Lincoln).
The performers do their best with what they have to work with. Two actresses alternate in the role of Sara; I saw Kristin Danielle Klabunde and she was always endearing and energetic, handling her songs and dances quite well. David Lee Kellner, as Sara's father, looks and sounds fine, and Jenna Rose's Mariette (the French teacher) is enchanting, despite having been saddled with particularly unwieldy songs. Patty Montano as Miss Minchin oversells her songs and lines, but at least does it with a modicum of theatrical flair. Sickinger's direction, Brittney Jensen's choreography, Billy Fox's minimal set designs, Carla Gant's costumes, and Robert Caruso's lights all work on a basic level, but, much like the book and score, never go above and beyond when required.
It must be said that, problems aside, this may well be a fine family show; many of the children in the audience at the performance I attended seemed to be having a great time. That makes sense, since they probably haven't seen all the other shows this A Little Princess draws upon for its inspiration. If you have, you can safely skip it.
A Little Princess