Last night Fiddlehead Theatre opened the Boston area premiere of the new musical, A LITTLE PRINCESS, (playing through Dec. 8th) at the historic Strand Theatre. You have to give producer/director Meg Fofonoff credit for trying to remedy the sound system which almost sank her production of RAGTIME at the Strand last year. This year two enormous eight foot speakers flank the stage, aimed squarely at the audience.
We (two reviewers) were seated, alas, directly in front of the stage right speaker (I presume the stage left section had the same problem), where a wall of sound which would have daunted even Phil Spector, almost deafened us. Why the reviewers weren’t all seated in the center section is beyond me! Where we were, you couldn’t make out dialogue, let alone lyrics. And the orchestra merely sounded bombastic.
We’re no dopes. At intermission we moved to the back of the center section, which was quite an improvement, although not perfect by any means. Fuzzy reverb still hampered the dialogue but your ears got used to it. This got me to thinking. I recently saw the Actors’ Shakespeare production of Romeo and Juliet at the Strand and none of the actors wore mics. If you could hear them, why not have singers without microphones?
I’ve read the Frances Hodgson Burnett book and seen the non-musical A LITTLE PRINCESS numerous times at Wheelock Family Theatre, so I’m pretty familiar with the story. The Brian Crawley/ Andrew Lippa musical naturally expands on certain elements but to my surprise, a good deal of the story is completely changed, including substituting Africa for India (so they can capitalize on Lion King dancing and chanting, no doubt).
The headmistress role (of the English school where Sara Crewe is sent while father is away) has been enlarged so she can become an ersatz Miss Hannigan and some of the less fortunate girls can experience the “hard knock life.” Later on at a lavish party (where she’s dressed in voluminous green) she gets her comeuppance via a writhing “African” trance, and I thought surely she would scream “I’m melting” and fall to the ground.
Captain Crewe’s travails have been completely altered, not to mention that Crawley’s book for the musical has jettisoned the heart rending conclusion of the original when Sara finds her father alive but broken in a military hospital. In this version, their faithful servant warns Sara that imprisonment has changed him, then up he pops out of nowhere in fine fettle, looking just as spiffy as when he left, decked out in his smart Major General garb! (Crawley and Lippa throw in a funny Gilbert & Sullivan number with father as the very model of you-know-who!) I’m a pushover for G&S and when you bring on Queen Victoria, I’m in heaven!
The pleasant music will remind you of Les Miz and Sweeney Todd and Annie with a touch of Christmas cheer thrown in which isn’t bad, mind you….but the lyrics are another matter. This is a show of easy rhymes: “Savor it” rhymes with “favorite,” and “able” rhymes with “table” but if you didn’t have the formidable Shana Dirik to make the “Lucky” song work (twice yet!) you’d be up the creek: “I’m unlucky..[but] …She’s lucky…Worse than that, she’s plucky.”
Lucky, as well, for Fiddlehead was casting Sirena Abalian in the title role. She’s a pro. She sings beautifully and she holds the show together, not an easy proposition when scenes in Africa and England are staged simultaneously (in Sara Crewe’s imagination) but it looks to us like everyone is incongruously in the same place. The two worlds are not well enough differentiated for an audience to grasp the dramatic concept. I know the story and I was confused.
An opening night gremlin may account for the cringe worthy piccolo and horn in Balint Varga’s orchestra and the clumsy dancing, but not for the uninspired choreography. Anthony Phelps’ evocative set (especially the rooftops for Sara’s escape) gives the show character and several performances supply much needed polish: In addition to Abalian and Dirik, Jared Dixon radiates nobility as faithful servant/friend to father (Jared Triolo), Aubin Wise adds mystery as the priestess, Bridget Bierne provides whimsy as the headmistress’ flighty sister and Liliane Klein as Queen Victoria is a treat.