By Manning Harris
Theatrical Outfit is currently running a charming musical version of a British novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published in 1905.
The musical, which runs through Dec. 27, has been made into at least three films, the most famous of which is the 1939 movie starring Shirley Temple.
In 1838 the wealthy Captain Crewe (Bryant Smith) is devoted to his 13-year-old daughter Sara (Emerson Steele), but he must leave her at an English boarding school while he seeks further fortune in far-off Timbuktu. He has taught her to comport herself like a princess—not haughty, but kind, generous, and courageous.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t see how such demeanor from a privileged girl could arouse the almost pathological ire and envy of certain people, specificially the headmistress Miss Minchin (Christy Baggett), and also certain other other girls at the school, like Lavinia (Kelly Lamor Wilson).
It’s a good thing the Captain has taught Sara to “Live Out Loud” and to “Soldier On,” because she receives bad news at the end of Act I; she faces a situation which will require all her intelligence, poise, grace, and strength.
Andrew Lippa’s music and Brian Crawley’s book and lyrics are tuneful and even anthemic at times; there is a live orchestra (always welcome in Atlanta these days). Musical direction is by Gregory Van Sudmeier and choreography by Ricardo Aponte. The entire production is directed by Mira Hirsh.
The show becomes quite a large, sprawling thing, using virtually every corner of the Outfit’s large and versatile stage. Jon Nooner is the set designer. There’s a pleasant African interlude, with music and dancing that will inevitably make you think “Lion King”; this is not a bad thing.
The greatest strength of this “Little Princess” is the strong cast: from Brenna McConnell’s Becky (whom Sara champions); to Laughton Berry’s Pasko; Molly Coyne’s Miss Amelia, Miss Minchin’s amusing, “good” sister; the golden-voiced Bryant Smith, and the ultimately pathetic Miss Minchin, who attributes her lot in life to not being “Lucky.” It never occurs to her that with a change in consciousness she, too, could be a “Princess,” a queen of hearts, as the late Princess Diana strove to be.
There are more fine contributions from Mary Caroline Owens, Jeanette Illidge, Kandice Arrington, Allison Gann, Mary Nye Bennett, Tina Fears, Jared Brodie, Olivia Windley (a fine Ermengarde), Matt McCubbin, Leah Faser, Sterling McClary, and Amelia Kushner.
Then there is Emerson Steele as Sara. Ms. Steele is 16-years-old and is called upon to anchor the whole show. This the Atlanta native does, with the ease of a Broadway veteran, which she is: She debuted on Broadway in “Violet,” with Sutton Foster and has made her solo debut at New York’s Feinstein’s 54 Below, one of the city most prestigious clubs. She sings like a dream, dances, and acts with the ease of someone twice her age. In short, I think the lovely Ms. Steele is the future on view, right now. I wouldn’t miss her.
True, “The Little Princess” is a mite top-heavy, about ten minutes too long, could be play-doctored just a tad. But all that’s the hole in the doughnut: This show is fresh, engaging, and has awards written all over it. There’s even a wonderful message about living one’s life with courage and tenacity and grace. And you can’t miss Ms. Steele.
For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.