note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Beverly Creasey
What is it that makes a musical stay with you? It may be the songs. It might be the message. In the case of SARA CREWE: A LITTLE PRINCESS at the Wheelock Family Theatre, it’s a transcendent moment in Act II when we see the far reaching power of a simple act of selflessness.
You may remember the Shirley Temple tear-jerker taken from the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett or you may have seen the stage adaptation at Wheelock a few seasons ago. Now the story of the poor little rich girl has been turned into a lovely musical by Susan Kosoff (book and lyrics) and Jane Staab (music), in the “Secret Garden” or “Les Miz” mold. (Burnett is also the author of the novel which inspired the musical, “A Secret Garden” and the story of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” which hasn’t yet inspired a musical.)
It doesn’t hurt that Wheelock has the resources to mount a first rate production of the new musical. In addition to a spectacular Victorian set by Janie E. Howland, Wheelock has a dream cast to bring it to life. Sara is played by Andrea C. Ross, a young actress with the poise and charisma of a professional many years older. Christopher Chew plays her doting father. It is he who calls her a princess. When the checks for Sara’s room and board stop coming, Sara deLima gets to chew some scenery as the unyielding headmistress with no sympathy for poverty. (When Sara loses everything, deLima croons “Why Did This Happen To Me?”)
Rich or poor, Sara Crewe expresses her compassion for her fellow human –and animal—beings. She happily befriends the scullery maid (Ariel Harrist) even before her fortunes are reversed, comforts a homesick student (Katherine Doherty) and comes to the aid of a little girl who needs help with her lessons (Sophie Rich). Even the rats who share the cramped attic quarters with Sara get crumbs---and names!
Director Staab has assembled a passel of seasoned Wheelock veterans who makes even small roles stand out: Gamalia Pharms as the headmistress’ overwhelmed sister, Frank Gayton as father’s upstanding business partner, Robert Saoud as the caring solicitor, all add polish to the production but it is Cheryl McMahon as the proprietress of a bakery who brings home the message of kindness. She gets the sweetest song, “As Kind As She” and the best moment in the musical, which comes as a wonderful surprise. (Even though I remembered the story, I hadn’t remembered this twist, which is beautifully realized, and framed in the musical to enhance its importance.) It’s not often that a musical improves on the original source material, but Kosoff and Staab have made this story sing!