|Monsieur DuFarge (Michael Prange) enjoying some mayhem with girls from|
the Seminary. Photo by Ammon Riley.
By Tina Arth
Beaverton officially kicked off the city’s holiday season with an evening aimed at children and those who are children in their hearts: the lighting of the enormous tree outside the Beaverton Library followed by opening night of Beaverton Civic Theatre’s charming production of A Little Princess. Director Melissa Riley is using Bethany Schwarzkopf’s adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much-loved novel, a perennial favorite of young girls throughout the English-speaking world. Like the novel, this version of the story is most captivating to pre- and early-teen girls, but the show is appropriate for many younger children and adults who cherish the world of imagination.
The play is set early in the 20th century and tells the story of young Sarah Crewe, a wealthy young girl raised in India who has lost her mother. Her father is off to South Africa to expand his fortune with investments in the diamond mines, and he leaves his beloved daughter in the care of Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Ladies (in this version, located in New York City). Sarah has been treated like a princess all her life, and she treats everyone she meets (especially the underdogs) with the same gentle and loving attitude. For the first four years she is given royal treatment by Miss Minchin (who actually is quite jealous, and despises the young girl). When word reaches the Seminary that Sarah’s father has died and left her a pauper, the tables quickly turn. Sarah is sent to the attic to live and work with Becky, the scullery maid. Overworked, abused, and half-starved, she catches the attention of a wealthy neighbor, Thomas Carrisford, who has been searching for years for the daughter of his deceased friend, Captain Crewe. When Sarah recognizes her father’s friend, he rescues her from the evil Miss Minchin (and ensures that Miss Minchin will be punished for her misdeeds). The implausible coincidences and simplistic resolution work fine, because the play is aimed at children and celebrates the power and beauty of a child’s imagination.
8th grader Charlotte Burke (“Sarah”) is a stage veteran who carries off the lead role with compassion, resignation, pathos, and fire (as the moment demands). Jeanine Stassens (“Miss Minchin”) personifies of every girl’s worst nightmare as she shifts from obsequious toady to cold sadist, and she laces her performance with believable menace. As “mean girl” Lavinia, Victoria White brings a devious, self-righteous snobbery to her performance that most women in the audience must have recognized from their own middle school years, while Belle Edwards does a superb job of making us believe that she is the insecure and friendless “Ermendgarde.” Although the mature Michael Prange (“Monsieur Dufarge”) claims not to have acted since high school, he creates a warm and memorable character (and does a solid job of maintaining his French accent). While he has very few lines and the diction of a kindergartner, tiny Logan Pounders (“Beggar Boy”) is impossibly endearing – the few moments he is on stage are unforgettable.
Alex Woodard’s set design is simple and flexible, and the use of the steps to carry on action during minor set changes ensures that no time is lost. The auditorium’s new light system is utilized to full advantage, and lighting designer Carter Marquis uses this medium effectively to change locale and mood throughout the play.
In a cast with lots of children, there are inevitably problems with vocal projection, and there are a few places where (at least from the back of the auditorium) I had a hard time understanding bits of dialogue. While the context is clear enough that there is no danger of getting lost, audience members with hearing issues should plan to arrive early and sit closer to the stage. One other warning – judging from the behavior of children in two nearby rows, this is not a show well-suited to the interests and attention span of some active small boys. If they can’t handle two hours of young girls and their princess-fetishes, leave the poor little guys home!
Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of A Little Princess runs through Sunday, December 20th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 7:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 pm matinees on Sunday.