Review: A Little Princess at Theatrical Outfit

4 Dec

It must first be noted that I attended this production in previews, which is essentially like judging a book by an unproofed advance copy. That’s an important caveat to express, as there were major issues with the sound throughout the show–something to do with the balance of tracks and microphones. At one point in the second act the audience’s ears were nearly blown out for a good 10 seconds of transition music. Other times, particularly when the singers dropped into a low register, it was completely inaudible. Only a trained techie could say for sure. One thing that is certain though, is that virtually no one could be heard and understood.

This review attempts to look beneath these technical issues, which one hopes will be ironed out by opening tonight, to the meat below.

The problem is, there’s just not a whole lot of meat on this bone. A Little Princess is a much-beloved and much-adapted tale, despite its premise being somewhat obsolete (girl abandoned at finishing school, goes from riches to rags and back again with help of mysterious benefactor). Though the details of the plot wear many faces, the story’s essential charm is irresistible.

Theatrical Outfit’s production certainly strives to capture and capitalize on that magic, and in some places succeeds. It’s rare that anyone remembers the lighting design but you will in this instance. It’s like a shower of cinnamon sugar, and completely controls the mood, especially in conjunction with a sprawling backdrop painting of an amorphous London/African sky.  The set design and decoration manages to achieve that perfect blend of functional and atmospheric, and the transitions, facilitated by the cast, were smooth as silk.

Two partial winners were the two Cs: choreography and costumes. Designer Elizabeth Rasmusson’s renderings were on display in the upstairs lobby for comparison to the final product. The rags were the highlight here. Most of the “fancier” dresses, including those worn by the school mistresses, were almost overwhelming in the space, historically accurate though they may be. And the little girls’ uniforms and pinafores–although likely also quite accurate in a historical sense–were vastly unfortunate in the stage sense, hanging like bags on all of them and nearly swallowing the tiniest ones alive like possessed pillowcases. The African costumes; I can’t vouch for historical accuracy, but their brilliance in contrast to the drabber Western garb functioned as a much needed delineation between London and Africa.

Ricardo Aponte’s choreography, while perhaps slightly ambitious for the space, was really interesting and beautiful, particularly the larger African pieces like the opening number and “Timbuktu.” The ensemble had some really strong dancers and I was quite stirred by the duet in Act II, even though it felt somewhat gratuitous. Also gratuitous were the random ballet sequences in “Almost Christmas” and elsewhere. It’s hard to make dancing out of place in a musical, but somehow it was. Perhaps it was due to the stark drop in technical artistry between the ensemble and the principles. Of course, many of them were children and can hardly be expected to have attained a level of mastery. But some of it was just plain awkward.

Also awkward were several, several moments of staging, with odd choices ranging from walking away during moments of high emotion when you desperately wanted to see the characters connect, and tons of back-to-audience blocking better suited to a theatre in the round, which Theatrical Outfit truly isn’t.

It’s hard to comment on the singing due the sound problems–I suspect, judging from the program bios, that these folks can carry a tune–but I was blown away by absolutely no one, including the lead. Which is a pity since it wouldn’t be too far off to call the entire production a star vehicle for Emerson Steele. Laughton Royce Berry brought it home in a major way with “Captain Crewe,” but I couldn’t tell you what the song was about if my life depended on it. Christy Baggett can act the hell out of a vocal piece, but almost sounded like she was singing out of her range. Bryant Smith as Captain Crewe was a real disappointment on both acting and signing fronts, considering his lofty credentials (including Jean Valjean at Aurora). I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt due to the sound, and also the lack of juice in that particular role.

By far the best all-around performance was Brenna McConnell as Becky. Not only did she pretty much nail the difficult working class accent, but she was literally the only person on stage that managed to make the audience LOL. She positively exuded energy and magnetism, even in the opening scene where she was charged with simply sitting on a bed and silently watching a good 7-minute number. She drew my eye almost as much as the action. Especially impressive considering the girl is in sixth grade, when most of us are as interesting as a bag of cement. Plus, she thanked her three best friends by name in her bio. #stayclassy

None of the other girls held a candle to McConnell’s flame. Olivia Windley as the awkward Ermengard sounded as if she’d just had her braces tightened and was completely unintelligible, which one hopes wasn’t a directorial choice. Kelly Lamor Wilson had a compelling stage presence but her Lavinia was pure bully with no layers. Molly Coyne as the good cop school teacher likewise lacked nuance in striving for loveable stupidity, although her voice was lovely. Jeanette Illidge was mesmerizing, with an absolutely regal bearing and (I’m pretty sure, at least) a powerhouse voice, but unfortunately her character Aljana wasn’t fully realized–definitely a fault of the book, not of the actress.

Steele as the title character was certainly watchable, and made strong choices, even though I didn’t agree with all of them–most particularly her coldness to Lottie when she was made a servant. It completely undermines the idea of Sarah as a princess under even the most dire and dark circumstances, which is the crux of the story’s power. Sarah spent very little stage time as a pauper in fact, which, especially if you’re familiar the Hodgson-Burnett novel, is akin to taking a dangerous number of bricks out the Jenga tower. Again, this adaptation by Crawley and Lippa is likely to blame. But Steele’s hunched over, somewhat plaintive physicality was a real detriment to anyone affecting to be a princess, even a make-believe one. Fifteen is a perfectly suitable age to play 13 on stage, even though she is rather tall–but the impression she gave was that of trying to play even younger by somehow shrinking herself. Steele was compelling in the school scenes, but the bond between Sarah and her father, which is crucial to the emotional heart of the story–was shaky at best. They acted like actors in their scenes together, which is really the most accurate and devastating thing that can be said. Certainly a more riveting performance than could be coaxed out of most 15-year olds, but not quite the bar level I was expecting for someone with multiple Broadway credits and a solo show.

Overall, I would recommend this production to young audiences and the people who love them, and perhaps devotees of the story who are interested in any and all takes on it. Do wait a few performances to give them time to iron out the technical difficulties, see if you can score discount tickets, and enjoy this holiday confection. The rest of us–wait till it comes to video.

A Little Princess runs December 3 – 27, 2015 at the Balzar Theatre. Tickets at Theatrical Outfit

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