Sara Crewe: A Little Princess

by Sandy MacDonald

EDGE Entertainment Contributor
Friday Feb 3, 2006

Andrea C. Ross and Christopher Chew


Andrea C. Ross and Christopher Chew
(Source:Kippy Goldfarb)

I'll admit it, I'm an Andrea C. Ross groupie. Having seen her lambent, thoroughly unobnoxious Annie at Trinity Rep nearly three years ago, I've been trailing her ever since -- through Lizzie Borden: The Musical at Stoneham Theatre, A Little Night Music at the Lyric, the Wheelock Family Theatre's Sound of Music a year ago, and oh, at last June's Norton Awards. (She won one for Outstanding Actress – the youngest performer to date to be so honored.)

Alas, I wasn't able to catch her performance at the invitation-only Sydmonton Festival in England last summer but hear she was in very good company: that of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who not only signed her on to regale his private party but personally rehearsed her for it as well.

When an actress can boast a resume like that at age fourteen, you might expect to see some serious attitude, or at the very least a kleig-strength persona determined to sweep everyone else onstage into the shadows. But Ross's gift is her graciousness, her ability to fit herself into the work at hand and not so much shine as glow. This she does straight through WFT co-founders Susan Kosoff and Jane Staab's 1995 musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved 1903 novel A Little Princess (retitled for the musical stage as Sara Crewe: A Little Princess.

The primary pitfall in portraying Sarah Crewe – a paragon of pluck who plummets from pampered boarding-school poppet to scullery drudge when her father's fortunes fail – is that she's so darn virtuous ("clever," imaginative, empathetic, egalitarian) that in the wrong hands she can come across as insufferable. Kosoff's book deglazes her somewhat: Sarah is shown to be modest, to boot. She describes herself as "odd," and Ross picks up on this recessive quality. Her Sarah doesn't just burst into song at every swell of emotion (and the music is not all that memorable anyway); she broods -- as did Ross's Annie. Ross lets you in on Sarah's suffering, and leaves enough space so you can really see her trying to make sense of her lot.

Over the past three years, Ross's voice has mellowed from a bell-pure soprano to a rich, warm mezzo. Even without her extraordinary musical gift, she has the wherewithal as an actress to bring her characters' inner truth to light.

So does Ross make mincemeat of her agemates? Not at all. As Ermengarde, the pudgy outsider whom Sarah befriends, Sophie Rich holds her own, as does Katherine Doherty (SOM's Gretl) as the bratty little Lottie, and Ariel Harrist as Sarah's chambermaid chum Becky. It's a pity, though, that apparently no one thought to steer Harrist toward a more credible and consistent lower-class English accent (no dialogue coach is credited). Staab's own Cockney is good -- she has a cameo as a mean, thieving cook -- and Cheryl McMahon's is passable in the role of a soft-hearted baker. However, someone – Staab as director, perhaps – ought to have reined in McMahon's solo number, As Kind as She. It's forced, warbly, and just plain over the top.

Native speaker Sara deLima, who plays the detestable martinet of a schoolmistress Miss Minchin, seems to be experiencing some difficulties switching registers, but she acts her songs incisively, and chomps onto the villain's role with obvious delight: it's fun to watch her munch the scenery into mulch.

Christopher Chew appears all too briefly in Act I as Sarah's father, an army captain who must resume his post abroad, and his "letter" songs linger, touchingly. Given that this version doesn't take the Shirley Temple he-just-had-amnesia! route, it wouldn't have hurt to give Chew a dual role – bring him back, say, slightly disguised to play Crewe's penitent business partner, who has likewise suffered a bout of "brain fever."

What with the huge cast (twenty-seven people to mobilize!) and a slow-moving, if cleverly conceived rotating set (designed by Janie E. Howland), the second act bogs down a bit, and the whole endeavor clocks in at 2 ½ hours – a long haul for the young and the restive.

For Ross fans, though, it's over all too soon.

At the Wheelock Family Theater, (617-879-2300; http://www.wheelock.edu/wft), 200 The Riverway, Boston; Fridays 7:30 pm, Saturday-Sunday 3:00 p.m.; tickets $12-20.

Sandy MacDonald covers theatre for the Boston Globe and TheaterMania.com. She is also a travel/food writer and the author of Quick Escapes Boston: 25 Weekend Getaways from the Hub (Globe-Pequot).