Princesses at The 5th Avenue Theatre
The parallels to The Little Princess are none too subtly drawn, as the show's heroine Miranda (Jenny Fellner) is shipped off to an exclusive all-girls boarding school by her self-absorbed movie star dad Kevin Finch (Brent Barrett) and ends up cast by her mousy music teacher Ms. Nibbey in the pivotal role of Sara Crewe in the school's musical of A Little Princess. Enter errant Daddy Finch, pushed out of a Hollywood action film by a younger model of himself, and attempting to make amends with Miranda by directing (and playing her father in) the show. When the Hollywood know-it-alls ask Finch back, he reverts to type and heads back to the Hollywood Hills, seemingly trashing all the inroads made with this daughter. This leaves her ready to desert the school and the show for a romantic trip to Paris with her L.A. boyfriend, the aforementioned younger model of her dad, Zachary Tanner (Storm Newton). But, with a stern reproach from a suddenly gutsy Ms. Nibbey, Miranda stays in the show, and the tale reaches its predictable happy ending.
The good news is chiefly to be found in the performances, particular those of Brent Barrett and Donna English. Barrett plays a winking parody of a vain, egotistical Hollywood leading man with the same kind of panache and rich singing voice that were the trademark of the great Jack Cassidy. With his commanding delivery, Barrett makes his decent but unremarkable opening number seem better than it is. English, who has pastiched everyone from Julie Andrews to Marin Mazzie in various stints in the venerable off-Broadway revue Forbidden Broadway, embodies the drab-as-a-doormat Ms. Nibbey to perfection, then channels the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton, as the teacher takes on the role of Sara Crewe's detestable girls school matron Miss Minchin. The pair make some real musical theatre magic together in the scene in which Finch shows Ms. Nibbey how to embody the malevolent Miss Minchin, to the strains of a delicious comic duet entitled "Go There."
Jenny Fellner as Miranda has an attractive pop-belt voice and plays the scenes as Sara with genuine feeling. She and Barrett generate honest pathos in the show's most melodic and heartfelt numbers: "By Heart," in which Sara bids goodbye to Captain Crewe; and their closing duet, "I Will Never Leave You." Sadly though, the Steinkellner's don't give us much of a reason to really root for poor little rich Miranda herself, especially as her rivalry with ice-princess blonde Lindsay/Lavinia (a woefully underused Mary Faber) lacks any real sense of conflict before, suddenly, in the middle of a late act two production number, they shake hands and make friends. Storm Newton provides eye candy for young girls in his brief moments as Zach Tanner and is saddled with a queasy, pseudo-seduction, wannabe chart topper, "Say Yes," which would likely lead most teenage girls to say no.
Some of the best moments in the show go to the teen misfit girls, including a trio number "What A Drag," which gives Lindsay Mendez, Sierra Boggess, and Anne Letscher (as Captain Crewe, the Indian Servant and the Monkey, respectively) the same kind of audience wowing moment as the three strippers get in the second act of Gypsy. Marisa Perry as Kit/Becky has great comic sidekick instincts and is shortchanged by not having a featured song of her own. Her program bio shows that she recently attended a "Tracy Turnblad camp" and, indeed, this bubbly young gal deserves to play Tracy - on tour, on Broadway or who knows, in the movie.
Director Zippel needs to cut about 10 minutes of the show, or else find a way to pick up the somewhat meandering pace, especially in act one. His work in the very believable closing moments of Little Princess hits levels of believability and hilarity not found much elsewhere in the show, as Sara is pursued through London streets by the witchy Minchin. Anyone who has done high school musicals or community theatre will identify with this sequence. But was it budgetary considerations that led the show's authors to eliminate any other adult authority figures? A principal, a gym teacher, and a few others would be welcome. Also, though the jokes keep coming, must the Steinkellner's teen characters all be such caricatures and stereotypes?
In the song department, there are a few clunkers, including the really lame opener, "Saved By The Bell," which starts the show off quite poorly, the aforementioned "Say Yes" and the blandly generic "Butterflies." The young ensemble do get something of a rousing rock number with "The Best Revenge", but generally Wilder and Zippel do better with their more musical theatre-centric numbers and seem to have missed several seemingly obvious windows in the Steinkellner script which could have been musicalized more succinctly.
Choreographer Rob Ashford, who did such a snazzy job on Thoroughly Modern Millie, never really pulls off a slam bang dance sequence in this show, though that may be a limitation of its structure. William Ivey Long's costumes for the schoolgirls scenes are acceptably heightened versions of the real thing, and the Little Princess costumes are a treat, while scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt also hits his peak with the tongue in cheek look for the show-within-the-show scenery, and lighting designer Ken Billington's work is customarily top drawer. Sound designer Jon Weston can't do much with making sure that many of the unfamiliar lyrics, particularly in the pop-styled numbers, are audible, though Lynne Shankel's musical direction and musical arrangements are most agreeable.
A fellow theatergoer, upon exiting, said to me "If Hairspray (in its Seattle tryout) was an 8, this was a 5." My thinking is that Hairspray was more fine tuned when it first arrived here, and little tinkering was really needed. Princesses at this stage in its development is hardly an embarrassment, but it is hardly ready for a quickie transfer to the Big Apple. If its creators are as savvy as I suspect, they may polish its crown for a while before unveiling it to the more demanding audience that will greet it in Manhattan.
Princesses runs through August 28 at the 5th Avenue Theatre. 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. Visit the 5th Avenue's web-site at www.5thavenuetheatre.org for further details.