Natalie Rine, Contributing Critic - New York City
Vanguard Theater Company’s “A Little Princess” bursts with the earnest vivacity of a small child at Christmas—or make that rather, twenty small children shining on stage currently in this valiant tale of a girl whose spirit can’t be squashed. Based on the classic novel by Frances Hodson Burnett, this “A Little Princess” by composer Andrew Lippa and book and lyric writer Brian Crawley hops, skips, and jumps it’s way around the dark Victorian undercurrents of racism and classism, preferring instead to bask in the warm glow of youthful optimism and defiant “keep your chin up” songs.
Leading through the fray of saccharine material is the production’s young star, Mareau Hall, as Sara Crewe, a well-off daughter of a British captain sent from their post in Africa back to a dreary girls school in England when her father goes missing. Miss Hall shows vast maturity and range, carrying the show’s rousing numbers and heartbreaking scenes with boundless marvel and spunk. Her Sara is one befitting of a generation with Rey and Captain Marvel as heroes; she stands her ground with grace and assiduity when faced with bullies, poverty, and injustices, making her justly earn the lines referring to her aptly as more of a “little soldier” than a “little princess.” While this updated attempt at small feminism by the male writers is passable writing at best, Sara Crewe still remains largely written as a one-dimensional “Annie,” always smiling and friendly, the object of bad circumstances there to teach others to be “good,” but never the catalyst or propeller of her own events.
There is a darkness inherent to the original story that is lost in this musical retelling, that can be seen barely clouding around the characters on the periphery of our sights yet brushed out of our faces when we squint too close. Take for example the horrible, nasty villain Miss Minchin, the strict headmaster of the school who we are told sends the girls to bed with whippings and without supper. Unfortunately, this stage version does little by way of showing instead of mere telling, delivering Miss Minchin an early solo explaining that she is mean because she is jealous of Sara’s youth, beauty, and luck. Seriously? Delivering no real threat to Sara’s bubble of pure good and righteousness, Minchin, instead of the original pure villain from the source material, now exists as a sort of pathetic commentary on the classism and racism pervading society. Terrified of losing the privilege she has amassed by running the school (and considering she is a single woman of an older age in a patriarchal society), her fear of children’s ability to see through her and be better than her is perhaps the most poignant point made for a 2019 audience feeling strongly every day that children are the future when faced with adversity, school shootings, and political activism. The inherent truth that young girls can be well-intentioned and also nasty bullies to each other at the school is powerful next to Miss Minchin’s cartoony whims (rhyming lucky with ducky… again—seriously?).
April Leonhard as Miss Minchin delivers a fine performance given the writing’s shortcomings, and her voice captivates and soars. Her real gift is in the comedic timing of the musical, such as when Sara and the girls finally get back at her a la a hilarious “Beetlejuice”-esque voodoo moment. Toni Gardner provides an excellent foil to Miss Minchin as her sister Miss Amelia, the French teacher at the school who maybe isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Kind-hearted and good-natured, Miss Amelia is the Glinda to Miss Minchin’s Wicked Witch, and as such I found myself wishing to no avail they would have a duet to reconcile their differences. However, Ms. Gardner was delightful and charming, with a voice dripping with honey and sweetness that wrapped the girls and the audience in a warm, loving hug indicative of Miss Amelia’s good nature.
The rather bland music and book struck somewhere like a lesser “Secret Garden,” with all the same colonialism issues, but this time skirted around expertly and vibrantly by director Janeece Freeman Clark. Infusing the African scenes with beauty and honesty and warmth, Clark creates a nice homey contrast to Sarah’s cold wooden school setting, fusing themes of home and identity seamlessly across continents and generations. Choreography by Lisa Grimes and Quashierra Muhammad steal the show entirely, captivating and throwing joy and energy around the room like a ricocheting pinball machine.
Other standouts include Gabby Beredo as best friend and maid Becky, who acts and sings with the maturity and courage of someone far beyond her years. Mollyjane Boyle, alternating the role of bully Livinia with Lydia Ryan, plays petulance perfectly. Dan Drew played an earnest, loving Captain Crewe. Trevor Lavine, as his devoted counterpart Pasko, has a stunning voice that soars and soothes, providing a beacon of hope and light for the Crewes in their time of need. Ultimately, this “A Little Princess” is exceptional in bringing young and experienced talent together, juxtaposing all the joy and sorrow of childhood and adulthood in a broken world together, and showing us at the end of the day, “let your heart be your compass.”
A LITTLE PRINCESS
“A Little Princess” book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, music by Andrew Lippa, based on the novel by Frances Hodson Burnett, is directed by Janeece Freeman Clark. “A Little Princess” stars Mareau Hall, Gabby Beredo, Lenyx Rose, Trevor Lavine, Dan Drew, April Leonhard, Toni Gardner, Annika Bergstrom-Shaw, Yasmeena Sharif, Kazoani Gonmiah, Abigail Sebastian, Mollyjane Boyle, Lydia Ryan, Bridget Campbell, Rylee Allen, Ren Bailey, Amber Ruffin, Duane Banks, and Danielle Krause. School Girls are Brooke Barak, Amanda Bracken, Jada Clark, Isabelle Latorre, Nimah Lloyd, Molly Mackenzie, Justice Muhammad, Lydia Ryan, Isabelle Samuel, Abigail Zellner. African Ensemble is Marcus Beckett, Jaci Coleman, Lawrence Dandridge, Nigel Finley, Quashierra Muhammad, Amber Ruffin, Nimat Saleem, Amil Simmons.
The design team includes Lisa Grimes and Quashierra Muhammad (Choreography), Terri Gorgone (Musical Direction), Jeff Mccrum (Lighting), Lynne Oliver (Costumes), Eric Zoback (Set Design).
“A Little Princess” runs at The TBG Studio Theatre (312 W 36th Street New York, NY 10018) through May 12, 2019. Tickets for “A Little Princess” can be purchased online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/a-little-princess-the-musical-tickets-59229511062. For more information, please visit vanguardtheatercompany.org.
Photo of The Cast by Vanguard Theater Company.