The exuberant musical “A Little Princess,” now 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, heart-wrenching ballads and lively African music filled with drumming.
In the TMP production, 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.
Set mostly at a girls’ school in Victorian London, the story is Dickensian with hints of “The Secret Garden,” also written by Burnett. Sara Crewe (Lauren Nance) is the daughter of Capt. Crewe (James Walters), a British adventurer in Africa. Capt. Crewe leaves for a trip to the forbidden city of Timbuktu, Mali, after sending Sara to the London boarding school 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. Sara escapes the drudgery of her life in the school by imagining herself in Africa with the help of the spirit doll she brought with her.
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In the era the play is set, the British in Africa 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 Capt. Crewe and the native people seemed to be that of master and servant, and with the exception of his servant, Pasko (Eric Clausell), the Africans in the cast serve little purpose other than as 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 Capt. 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 his 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, who is played delightfully 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 stream of well-worn seasonal entertainment, 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.