When Andrew Lippa and Brian Crawley collaborated to make a musical out of the 1905 children’s classic “A Little Princess,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett (who also wrote “The Secret Garden”), they did some tinkering with the story line. Burnett’s “princess” heroine, Sara Crewe, now arrives at her London finishing school from West Africa rather than India. Her British officer father is no longer investing in a diamond mine; he’s an explorer looking to stop the slave trade in Timbuktu. He’s also, by the end of the evening, not dead, as he was in the original. Despite incorporating just about every cliché known to the Broadway musical, this 2004 show has yet to make it to Broadway. At the Strand Theatre, however, as performed by Fiddlehead Theatre Company, “A Little Princess” reigns.
It is, of course, hard not to root for a small girl abandoned in an unfeeling orphanage or boarding school, whether her name is Jane Eyre or Annie. Burnett’s Captain Crewe brings his daughter to Miss Minchin’s school in London because the climate in India is dangerous for little girls. Sara is wealthy but not spoiled, and when the captain is reported dead and bankrupt and a furious Miss Minchin turns the girl into a household drudge, she soldiers on, maintaining that she’s still a princess because she acts with the grace and dignity of one.
The musical flattens her out somewhat. This Sara doesn’t want to leave Africa because it’s full of sun and color and drums singing. London for her represents rain and lockstep. “I need to be as free as I know how to be,” she sings in “Live Out Loud”; later we learn that “if we have faith, we can’t go wrong,” and “when you’re lost, your heart will find the way.” Eventually, Crawley’s lyrics do find their way beyond treacle: Miss Minchin’s “Lucky” affords the sour headmistress some justification, and in the hilarious “Timbuktu,” Sara fantasizes that Queen Victoria has come to Africa to meet and marry her “dreamy” father. Victoria actually does show up at the end of “A Little Princess” to save the day. Hey, FDR is there at the end of “Annie.”
A LITTLE PRINCESS
Fiddlehead starts off the 2½-hour evening on the right foot by having Miss Minchin (Shana Dirik) and her sister Miss Amelia (Bridget Beirne), British accents firmly in place, deliver the pre-curtain announcement about taking note of the exits and turning off your cellphones. The production itself is almost too professional. The 13-piece ensemble led by Balint Varga sounds like a full orchestra, but on occasion it drowns out the singers. And that’s no easy feat, since the vocal score seems to consist of 25 power ballads, everyone blasting out the often unintelligible lyrics at the top of his or her lungs. Perhaps Fiddlehead artistic director Meg Fofonoff could find a way to dial back the amplification, which seems excessive for a theater the size of the Strand.
The performers don’t have to shout to get your attention. Sirena Abalian is a spontaneous Sara with a winning smile, a powerful voice, and a wistful way of doing the box step with her father. As Sara’s special friend, the servant girl Becky, a wide-eyed Carly Kastel matches cockney accent with cockney attitude. Jared Troilo’s boyish Captain Crewe, Dirik’s scenery-chewing Miss Minchin, and Beirne’s goody-two-shoes Miss Amelia are all appealing cartoons. And there’s no faulting the rest of the cast, which includes Aubin Wise and Jared Dixon as Sara’s African friends and Liliane Klein as a pert Victoria.
Some scenes in the musical take place simultaneously in London and Africa, and others happen only in Sara’s imagination. Anthony Phelps makes all this clear with scrims and curtains, and his set is full of picturesque details: the four-poster bed and huge mullioned windows of Sara’s original bedroom; the tiny alcove bed under the eaves when she’s banished to the attic; the spires and mansard roofs of the London skyline. Jennifer Tremblay’s period costumes are diverse and expensive-looking; Matt Romero’s choreography is infectious. “A Little Princess” might not be a Broadway show, but Fiddlehead makes you believe it could be.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.