exclusive to ON THE AISLE


based on the novel
by Frances Hodgson Burnett(1902-9)

book & lyrics by Susan Kosoff; music by Jane Staab
directed by Jane Staab
music direction &orchestration: Jonathan Goldberg
featuring Andrea Ross
with Christopher Chew, Sara DeLIma, Gamalia Pharms, Luis Negron,
Gary Thomas Ng, Frank Gayton, Robert Saoud, Grace Napier & Cheryl McMahon
Wheelock Family Theatre
200 The Riverway, Boston / (617) 879 - 2300
through Feb. 26

Reviewed by Will Stackman

If the title character of a book for younger readers is a girl, and the action of the story centers around that one character with little or no interaction with boys of her own age, then Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1902 classic "Sara Crewe"--revised as "The Little Princess"--is a "girls" book, unlike her most famous story, "The Secret Garden," which gives some weight to the invalid boy and his grieving father whom the heroine "saves" from despair. Still, as a work of melodramatic fiction, "Sara Crewe" ultimately makes the better music drama. The revival of Susan Kosoff and Jane Staab's version, which ran at the Wheelock Family Theatre 11 years ago, is one of the better musicals seen here this season and a jewel in WST's 25th Anniversary. Staab has directed the show with precision, aided by a first-rate cast of local theatre professionals playing the grownups, and featuring Andrea Ross, last year's Norton Best Actress, in the title role. Ross was seen last season in "The Sound of Music" as Liesl and as Ramona Quimby, as well as playing young Lizzie Borden in the Stoneham Theatre production and Fredricka in Lyric's "A Little Night Music"

The older actors include award-winner Christopher Chew, seen as Capt. Von Trapp, as her father, Ralph. Chew is also the co-artistic director of the new Village Theatre Project, a youth theatre in Groton. The rigid headmistress of Sara's school and her younger sister, the Misses Minchin, are played by Sara DeLima and Gamalia Pharms. Both have appeared for WST and various other local professional theatres. The solicitor's--what would a Dickensian novel be without lawyers--are Luis Negronas Barrow for Capt. Crewe and Robert Saoud as Carmichael for Tom Carrisford. The latter, Ralph's longtime friend, both the cause of Sara's misfortunes and her savior, is played by Frank Gayton. Gayton was seen as Buddy in Overture's "Follies" opposite Leigh Barrett and Len Cariou. Negron was last at WFT in "Ramona Quimby", and Saoud last appearance of many here was as The Witch in "Cinderella". Making cameo appearances are Staab as the surly Cook, and IRNE winner Cheryl McMahon as the kindhearted baker, Mrs. Brown. Grace Napier gets to herd the Carmichael children. And Gary Thomas Ng is back, this time as the mysterious lascar, Ram Dass, the role Saoud played in the original production.

The show is nothing of course without the younger members of the cast, who keep up with Ross , a freshman at Noble & Greenough, quite admirably. Particularly notable is Newton North sophomore, Ariel Harrist, as Becky the scullery maid, Sara's roomate in the attic. She played Louisa in "Sound of Music." The two outsiders Sara befriends at the school are Ermengarde, the slow learner, played and sung by Sophie Rich, and sad Lottie, played by Katherine Doherty, last year's Gretl, seen this past holiday as Susan in the Wang's "White Christmas". All three have effective scenes with the title character. The leader of the rest of the girls at Minchin's Seminary, Lavinia, is Natasha Ashworth,.with several shows to her credit at NSMT's Youth Theatre. The ensemble includes Samantha Goober(Jessie), Meg Igarashi(Gertrude), Jacqueline Marie Laviolette(Beatrice), Livvy Marcus(Rosalie), Mehr Kaur(Victoria), Christina Kashgegian(Elizabeth) and the Carmichael children, Gillian Mariner Gordon(Janet), Emily Eldrige-Ingram(Nora), and Christina Monnen(Donald), most with past productions and participation in Wheelock's educational programs. To round out the large cast, Robert G. Prescod is Msr. Defarge the French Master, Wheelock student Erin Jenkins is Mariette, Sara's French maid, and Milton Academy student, Samara Oster, part of last summer's WFT story Troupers, is Anna the beggar, who Sara feeds and the baker takes in.

WFT's music director Jonathan Goldberg has improved the show's orchestrations and conducts a six piece ensemble from the keyboard in the pit. He's been able let his skilled singers make use of their ranges while making the younger ensemble sound good as well. The three level set has two which revolve plus side wagons, another impressive design by Janie E. Howland, whose award-winning work can also be seen in Speakeasy's current show, "Five by Tenn". WST's award-winning choreographer Laurel Stachowicz adds her moves to big numbers, and ace costumer Marian Piro has once again provided convincing period clothes for one and all. Nicole Pierce adds nice "magical" touches to her lighting design and Andy Aldous has the complex miking firmly in hand. The open captioning display situated stage right only this time let's one verify just how well Kosoff has captured Burnett's period diction in the lyrics, which sing--and are sung--quite well in any case.

The show is old-fashioned in the best sense, capturing the spirit of the original and keeping it fresh by playing the action, by making the character's real. There are no caricatures in the show, which does not play down to its younger audience members. Kosoff and Staab have resisted updating this moral melodrama. keeping its message of generosity and being yourself, of the healing power of hope and imagination foremost. It won't change the skeptical, but most of its audience will appreciate its worth. And some of the grownups may even reread the book.