‘A Little Princess’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by November 14, 2016

‘A Little Princess’ is an extended version of the classic, Victorian short story by Sara Crewe. When Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote the play in 1902, her publisher asked that she expand the story and it was published as a book three years later. It is still considered 56th of the ‘Top 100 Books for Children’ – the ‘Secret Garden’ coming in at 15th.

Brian Crawley then wrote the lyrics and Tony-nominated composer, Andrew Lippa the music for this Western Australian premiere of this contemporary Broadway musical,

With the sudden closure of the Playlovers’ Theatre building in Floreat, Stirling Players came to the rescue and helped them stage this dark, but charming play at the Stirling Theatre, Morris Place, Innaloo.

The two and a half hour performances started at 8.00 pm, and the season ran until Saturday 12th November, with full houses almost every night.

 

It is Victorian central Africa. A wall of tea chests and packing cases fill the rear of the stage. To the right is a domestic furnace. On the left apron of the stage is a bedroom set, with a mosquito net over the bed. Set designer and artists are Lisa Johnston, Amber Southall, Leon Olson and Cherie Tucker.

The Orchestra is in a side room, opening onto the auditorium. The melodic Musical Director is Paul Olsen and his harmonious musicians are Joan Millington (piccolo), Catherine Warnock and Wayne Griffiths (reeds), Seton Douglas-Smith (trumpet), Sandra McKenna (French horn), David Gee (guitar), David Thai (percussion), Elizabeth Lavalla (keyboard), Elise Rosenberg and Laura Carr (violins). Being in a separate area, meant that the balance of the instruments for the accompaniment worked very well, and the freshness of the instruments’ timbre was particularly clear.

Production Assistant, Celeste Underhill is famous for giving good value to a production, and Stage manager, Bronwyn Hammond coped superbly with the massive cast and the numerous scene changes were ‘instant’ and flawless.

 

     When widower, Captain Crewe (Paul Spencer) is told to travel to Timbuktu – the most dangerous place in the world – he takes his African batman, Pasko (Richard Maganga), but must leave the caring African house servant, Aljana (Shikuku Cuthbertson). He enrols his young daughter, Sara (Stephanie Shaw, Jasmine Dos Santos alternating nights) into a posh boarding school in London, run by the sadistic, frustrated headmistress, Miss Minchin (Celeste Underhill). At the docks, Captain Crewe waves goodbye, as the ship’s captain (Paul Anderson) and his crew (Alexander Fleckner, Steve Anderson) take good care of Sara on the voyage.

     Crewe pays for special treatment for Sara at her new school; so she has her own room and a nervous, caring maid, orphan Becky (Sophia Matthews). The kind but subservient teacher is Miss Amelia (Erin Craddock), the headmistress’s younger sister; who is also bullied by the Head.

       There are several children in Sara’s class, but she befriends tubby and dim, Ermengarde (Sienna Freeman) and little Lottie (Bella Freeman alternating with Josephine Ellis). A couple of the classmates, Jessie (Ella Hagon) and Jane (Ella Simpson) think Sara is a ‘princess’, and even the two bossy, older girls, Nora (Holly Jamieson) and Lavinia (Katie Price) tend to show her some respect. However, when Sara’s funds dry up, her life is about to change for several years, but her generous nature still shines through.

    As Captain Crewe is trekking north through Africa, a tribal chief, Widow Zuma (Tara Lynette Elliot) puts a deadly curse on him. Soon he is starving and ill – will he survive?

     Could Becky’s Mum (Meesha Williams) really be still alive? Why does Queen Victoria (Amber Southall) want to meet Sara?

 

Choreographer, Amber Southall and her dance captain, Jamie-lee Olson, could easily have taken the easy way out with their African ensemble (Samantha Chidoko, Sandra Chidoko, Tanyaradzwa Matibiri, Arthley Matibiri, Tamara Perrozzi, Kevin Romeo and David Thai. Faced with such a large and young cast, many choreographers would present a little soft shoe shuffle, or some simple tribal stomping; however, Amber has practically the whole cast dancing at a breakneck tempo, every limb flayed and vibrated, as the bodies bobbed up and down. The actors were flawless, never missing a beat, and with their broad grins the warmth flowed to the audience. Lighting consultant, John Woolrych and his designer Katrina Johnston gave a glorious multitude of colours, pulsing to the beat of the African music. Operator Katrina and Steve Ellis did a wonderful job.

The busy London street ensemble included Sharon Malcolm and Eleanor Rowe, with umbrellas – what else in London? Hair stylist, Erin Craddock’s creations along with Candice Mountford and Tara Elliott’s makeup, impeccably complemented the hard work of costume coordinator, Lyn Hutcheson and her creative team of Kimberley Shaw, Amanda Simpson, Fran Gordon, Shikuku Cuthbertson, Linda Matthews, Amber Southall and Talia Hagon.

The headsets (technicians Ian Wilson and Daniel Toomath) worked perfectly and the soundscape had real life to it. All of the singing was to put it mildly – SUPERB. One expects the adults to be harmonious, with good enunciation and note perfect, and they were! But with youngsters as young as 8 years old in the cast, one can only hope for a ‘reasonable’ bit of quality from them. It was obvious from the first few notes of music, that I had set my standard far too low, every single ‘school student’ could easily perform in a major professional production – and I am sure they will – the quality was mind-blowing.

The night I saw the show, Stephanie Shaw played Sara, and her stage presence was something special. Her whole body was acting. Her voice was flawless, reaching every note of the large vocal range demanded by the score. The storyline necessitated emotions from elation to deep sadness, and was tackled immaculately by this young performer. I have been assured that the ‘other’ Sara was top notch too.

For Director Lisa Johnston this was a massive task, but when a show looks smooth, with great singing and flawless performances then you know that there is a huge amount of work and many sleepless nights behind it.

Many congratulations to all, a vibrant and yet sensitive show.