Regional Reviews: San Francisco
TheatreWorks Presents the World Premiere of Lippa, Crawley's A Little Princess
The musical is based on Francis Hodgson Burnett's children's novel, popular since the late 19th century. The story has been made into several films, including the darling little Shirley Temple Fox film in 1936. The setting of the musical has been moved from India to West Africa in 1838. Sara Crewe (Mackenzie Mauzy) is treated like a little princess in colonial West Africa since she is daughter of Captain Crewe (Will Chase), a wealthy and renowned adventurer. His main purpose in life at this time is to try to stop the slave trade that is flourishing in the area. He means to travel to the forbidden city of Timbuktu, where no white man has ventured. Captain Crewe has no alternative but to send Sara to Miss Minchin's Academy for Young Ladies in London. It might have been better if Sara had never left Africa, since that part of the musical is very lively and exciting.
Sara leaves the bright and sunny shores of Africa for the gloomy sunless London and wicked old Miss Minchin (Kimberly King) and here, the musical becomes a melodrama with Miss Minchin as the Miss Hannigan of her day. However, Miss Michin has a lovely younger sister, Miss Amelia (Molly Bell), who tries to be kind to all of the young ladies. Of course, no Victorian musical would be worth its salt without a nemesis, and Sara's is fellow student Livinia (Lyndsay Faye), who is so very uppity. It gets worse for poor Sara when it was wrongly reported that Captain Crewe has been killed in Timbuktu, his fortune lost; somehow he has been declared as a traitor to the English crown. Sara has a rough time of it, but she has two sturdy little friends, a girl's servant Becky (Remy Zaken) and a little frightened girl Lottie (Lizzie Jones), plus a nice adult, the lovely Miss Amelia. Since this is a family musical, we have a happy ending with even Queen Victoria (Lianne Marie Dobbs) and African servant Pasko (Casey Ford Alexander) somehow getting into the act in a very strange way. Oh, the kids will love it.
A Little Princess has some lovely melodic music by Andrew Lippa. It is very different from his score for The Wild Party, which I did not care for. This score reminds me of a cross between A Secret Garden and Jane Eyre, and some great voices singing the songs. There are several strong songs in the first act that are effective. The African melodies are full of drums and have an exciting beat. Lyrics by Brian Crawley work well with the melodies. Unfortunately, some of the melodies start out softly, then suddenly the actors' voices become louder and louder as if to make a point. This is especially true with Pasko, a loyal native servant to the Captain, in the soul searching song "Soon." Casey Ford Alexander has a soft and smooth voice in the number, but he has to reach loud and high notes which are not necessary to put the song across. (Why does every new musical have the singers belt out the last stanzas to get applause?)
Mackenzie Mauzy has an amazing voice for a young girl in the 10th grade. She still needs better stage presence, since she is somewhat tight in some of the scenes, displaying very little emotion. She should grow into the role as the musical progresses. Mauzy's voice is especially dynamic in the opening duet, "Soon, My Love," matching Will Chase's fine voice in the heartfelt song. The opening scene, with exuberant dancing choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, certainly is one of the highlights of this musical. It brings down the house.
Kimberly King gives an outstanding performance as Miss Minchin; she reminds me of Zoe Caldwell. Ms. King is marvelous when she holds center stage in the first act, singing "Lucky," a wonderful compassionate song sung, with great emotion. Lianne Marie Dobbs as Queen Victoria and Molly Bell as Miss Amelia have bell clear voices in their numbers, and Lizzy Jones and Remy Zaken are adorable as Sara's sidekicks. Both are very professional in their irrepressible singing.
In this production, the changing of scenes is one of the major problems. The book is cumbersome, with changes of scenes between West Africa and dingy old London being too jarring. In one scene, Sara tells the girls at school that they should have imagination, and suddenly out of nowhere, the African tribes come in and start to dance with the young girls. The girls in their Victorian pj's dancing with the colorful African dancers looks strange indeed. It's Lion King (no animals here) meets the first act of Jane Eyre. Also in the first act, about four scenes fly by, involving an organ grinder and a monkey who disappears, Sara looking for the monkey, Queen Victoria coming out of nowhere to help then finally seeing the monkey transported to the father in West Africa. This is a very confusing set of circumstances that does not help the plot along. Susan H. Schulman has her work cut out for her in attempting to get some of the scene changes to flow more smoothly.
The opening number of the second act has that Christmas Carol look about it and it is a nice, unrestrained piece that tries to fill the audience in as to what has happened to Sara since the reported demise of her father. There is also a spectacular dance number called "Timbuktu" that helps relieve the bulky book in the second act. It sort of comes out of nowhere, but it's fun, with a little of Gilbert and Sullivan repartee thrown in for good measure. The scenes between the Captain, trudging his way to the Forbidden City, and Sara at the London's school are jarring.
The chorus of dancers are extraordinary and very athletic in their moves. Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography is excellent, especially in the West African scenes. It is more acrobatic then standard dance. The chorus members have great voices and there is not one weak performer in the whole cast.
The look of the production is first rate, with earthy tones of textures in Heidi Ettinger's set for West Africa scenes. Costumes by Catherine Zuber are authentic and colorful, right down to the lace on the young English schoolgirls' outfits. The thirteen piece orchestra under the guidance of Joel Fram is super.
A Little Princess has much going for it and should be considered a work in progress. We need this kind of family musical to bring parents and children to live theatre. I am sure kids and their families will love the adventures of the young "princess." The musical plays through September 19 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro, Mountain View, Ca. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.
Their next production is Lisa Loomer's Living Out, which opens in Mountain View Performing Center on October 6th.