In the Sacramento Theatre Company's ambitious world premiere musical "A Little Princess," young Sara Crewe has been raised like royalty but must comport herself like a soldier.
Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1905 children's novel, the play features Sara's travails at Miss Minchin's School for Girls in London. With a book by William J. Brooke, music by Eric Rockwell and lyrics by Margaret Rose, the play amplifies Burnett's often gloomy yet ultimately hopeful fable.
While its telling is uneven the narrative stalls midway through each of its two 60-minute acts the play still achieves a satisfying, emotionally charged finish. Creating a world- premiere musical is no simple task and STC should be proud of this very solid effort.
At the center of the story is the heroine Sara, an English girl of considerable means who's more resolute than plucky. The excellent, full-voiced Alyssa Middleton played Sara in the performance I saw; Lauren Metzinger also performs the role.
Sara isn't a 19th-century version of Annie, though she eventually lands in a hard-knock life. She's quite well-off when her reassuring father, Capt. Crewe (the mellifluous Jerry Lee) deposits her at Miss Minchin's boarding school for girls, telling her she must be a little soldier.
The wealthy, widowed captain and his daughter have been living in India, but he doesn't feel it's the proper place for her education; their difficult separation is told in the beautiful duet "I Know You By Heart" from Middleton and Lee.
Soon after, the captain's friend Tom Carrisford persuades him to invest his fortune in a diamond-mining scheme, and the two men head to India.
The hardhearted Minchin (a dark, elegant performance from Deborah Tranelli) tolerates Sara until learning that the captain has lost all his money and has died in the jungle. Minchin then turns on Sara, becoming the play's black cloud and a rather one-dimensional villain.
Sara is made to be a lowly drudge, befriended only by her former classmate Ermengarde (a sprightly Devon Hayakawa) and the maid, Becky (Tori Johnson).
There's terrific singing from the cast, particularly Josh Powell as Carrisford and Michael De Souza as his servant Ram Dass. De Souza's quietly witty Ram Dass brings a needed comic element to the often bleak story, and a sparkling turn by Tyler Wipfli as a French maid also livens up the show.
Director Michael Laun's production lurches in tempo and tone at times, though it eventually finds solid footing. Miss Minchin's darkly dissonant lament "The Real World" lands like a rock near the end of the second act, though the story rebounds.
Erik Daniells conducts the live five-piece orchestra, which beautifully plays Rockwell's exquisite score with orchestrations from Matt Castle and Frank Galgano. Jessica Minnihan designed the sharp period costumes and Kelly Tighe designed the open-paneled set.
A LITTLE PRINCESS
What: The Sacramento Theatre Company presents a world-premiere musical based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel with music by Eric Rockwell, lyrics by Margaret Rose and book by William J. Brooke
Where: STC Main Stage, 1419 H St., Sacramento
When: Continuing at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and 12:30 p.m. Thursdays, through May 19.
Information: (916) 443-6722, www.sactheatre.org
Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including one intermission
Call The Bee's Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.