Book and Lyrics: Brian Crawley
Music: Andrew Lippa
Director: Arlene Phillips
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
France Hodgson Burnett’s novel A Little Princess may not be as popular as The Secret Garden but remains on many lists of classic children’s novels. Its tale of a kind-hearted rich girl at boarding school who is forced into servitude when her father dies having lost his entire fortune is almost Dickensian in its nature, while the titular character, Sara Crewe, is so perpetually optimistic and virtuous that even Little Orphan Annie might find her cloying.
The novel has been adapted to various media multiple times, including at least attempts to craft it into a stage musical. This version, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family, Big Fish) received its premiere in 2004, and then in a revised 2011 recording. Presented here in a semi-staged concert version at the Royal Festival Hall, it is perhaps easy to spot why it has not progressed further.
Relocating Sara’s background from India in the novel to Africa – director Arlene Phillips only narrowly avoiding the sort of cultural stereotyping lampooned by the likes of The Book of Mormon– the story is framed as the older Sara (Shvorne Marks) relating the story to her daughter, played by Jasmine Sakyiama, who then assumes the role of the young Sara in flashback. Danny Mac role as Sara’s father is rather smaller than the publicity material may suggest, but he works well with the scant material he is offered, ensuring that the strong bond he feels with the daughter he is despatching to an English boarding school is conveyed well.
Once Sara arrives at Miss Minchin’s Home for Incipient Women in London, events should kick into action, but the novel’s multiple story strands work against each other to prevent a coherent stage narrative. The conflicts between Amanda Abbington’s stern, money-obsesses Miss Minchin and her flighty, compassionate sister Amelia (Rebecca Trehearn) vie for attention with Sara’s attempts to settle into a new life, facing the school bully (Kate Woodman) befriending scullery maid Becky (Jasmine Nituan) and buying lavish gifts for her classmates so they can help her celebrate her birthday.
Abbington is making her musical theatre debut here, in a role which makes little demands on her singing voice. The majority of Miss Minchin’s stage time is taken up with spoken dialogue, allowing Abbington to revel in a character which she is able to make into a little more than the one-dimensional wicked governess the role could become. But as the show’s main antagonist, the character needs more than one song. As it is, Miss Minchin fades into the background a little too often for the threat she poses to feel actualised.
Similarly, accomplished West End musical performer Alexia Khadime is wasted in a role – as the embodiment of Sara’s “spirit mother” doll – which only allows her a couple of onstage appearances, and the best solo of the evening, Adam J Bernard’s ‘Captain Crewe’, comes from a character we barely know.
Also working against the musical is the decision to make Sara’s fall from riches into penury the climax of Act I. It ensures that the first act feels over-padded, while Act II contains many missed potentials for musical exploration. Also overshadowing both acts are the revised story for Mac’s Captain Crewe – here attempting an expedition to Timbuktu – which muddles both the issue of the cause of Sara’s loss of fortune as well as producing a happy-ever-after ending that robs the musical of some of Burnett’s bittersweet notes from the original novel.
The music itself is passable, elevated enormously in the Royal Festival Hall by two choruses, of adults and children, and an orchestra conducted by Lippa. But ultimately, A Little Princess is a musical project which, disappointingly, fails to convert the novel into anything that could be described as compelling.
Reviewed on 29 May 2018 | Image: Michael Warley