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'Little Princess' the musical has some growing up to do

By Karen Campbell, Globe Correspondent | February 9, 2006

Wheelock Family Theatre founders Susan Kosoff and Jane Staab have taken a valiant shot at transforming Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic ''A Little Princess" into a musical. They packed it full of tuneful songs and cute dance numbers, and it's well paced and engaging.

But overall, it feels a bit overblown and protracted. The music is a little cheesy, the lyrics are quite clunky in spots, and musical numbers tend to emphasize dramatic elements without really clarifying them or adding emotional depth. In addition, the story itself seems a bit pared down and perfunctory, with slightly one-dimensional characters slim on development.

''Sara Crewe: A Little Princess" probably would have been more successful as a simple dramatic adaptation of what for many girls is a beloved story. Set in 1887, it traces the life of a young girl, pampered by a single, overly indulgent father, who leaves life in India for a posh boarding school in London. When her father loses his wealth in a diamond mine scheme and succumbs to brain fever, Sara is left an orphaned and penniless burden to the school's cruel, imperious headmistress, Ms. Minchin. But the fertile imagination that kept Sara company in India serves her well in the cold, dark attic to which she is banished, and ultimately she finds her rightful place in the world. She maintains, ''I pretend I am a princess so I can behave like one."

But in Kosoff's adaptation, Sara doesn't really get a chance to grow or be transformed by circumstance or the people around her. From the get-go, she is presented as wise and compassionate well beyond her years, befriending the scullery maid and the school's problem girls. A dramatic treatment unencumbered by characters bursting into song around every corner might have left room for more emotional exploration.

However, that would have deprived us of the chance to hear some of the best young singing actresses Wheelock has assembled in years, starting with Andrea C. Ross as Sara. A Wheelock veteran at 15, Ross is a superb actress with crystalline articulation, a vivid stage presence, and a clear, natural soprano that carried even when her finicky mike cut off.

Throughout the ranks, the rest of the girls in the show were impressive vocally as well, especially Natasha Ashworth as Lavinia and Samantha Goober as Jessie. Sophie Rich and Katherine Doherty gave promising turns as the slow-witted Ermengarde and the tantrum-prone Lottie, respectively. This lively, committed ensemble alone makes ''Sara Crewe" worth the trip.

The grown-up actors were less consistent. Sara deLima gave a charismatic performance as the shrewish Maria Minchin, though her singing tended to be shrill.

Marian Piro's costumes were beautifully done, and Janie E. Howland's set was outstanding. The three-level interior revolved to reveal different rooms of the school, with peripheral scenes sliding in on side platforms.