BWW Review: REP's 'A Little Princess' Pulls Out All The Stops

BWW Review: REP's 'A Little Princess' Pulls Out All The StopsManila, Philippines--Repertory Philippines' (REP) 49th season culminates with a musical adaptation of A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1905 children's novel. Just in time for the holidays, REP's offering comes in a mixed bag of splendor and disenchantment.

First-rate literature rarely makes a favorable transition into live theater or cinema (though it didn't stop Hollywood from making three separate films of the same book, A Little Princess).

So, here's a humble children's classic as a premise for an extravagant musical--what could go wrong?

Not a lot--at least not in terms of theatrical execution. REP's production of A Little Princess is wholly captivating, inspired by an impeccable directorial and technical design and by a solid ensemble that merits an equally critical nod.

On the other hand, REP's choice of material leaves a smidgen to be desired.

There lies the rub. An expanded theater canon is not a bad thing, but the industry is rife with shows peddling the same formulaic motifs. Brian Crawley (book and lyrics) and Andrew Lippa (music) have brewed up a decent recipe for musical theater fans, but it's a far cry from the alchemy for which it strives.

As a musical, this Princess is a lamentable also-ran, albeit crafted by a talented duo, whose work invokes a prosaic mashup of Schönberg and Boublil (Les Miserables), Ahrens and Flaherty (Once On This Island), John/Rice/Zimmer (The Lion King), and Norman/Simon (The Secret Garden, which is based on another Burnett classic).

BWW Review: REP's 'A Little Princess' Pulls Out All The StopsIt's ironic that Crawley and Lippa might have taken a bigger risk by sticking to the book's original locale (Burnett's India has been moved to Africa). Africa is hard to resist, I suppose, what with all the vivid colors and the polyrhythmic appeal to ravage our senses. It's a suitable foil to the stodgy monochrome and the somber lyricism of Victorian England.

But so is India. It neither lacks for color nor takes a backseat to the West's harmonic consonance and predictable downbeat. If exotic mysticism is desired, there's ample serving right at home.

So with due respect to the African trademark, the authors' preferred detour may have cost them a shining opportunity to stand out. It might also explain why the show meanders in regional theater and never gets beyond it: we've seen this train before.

Having said all that, REP defies the odds and continues its legacy of lofty artistic values. For despite the material that ambles in a protracted search for identity, the company manages to engage our attention with its muscular yet delicate fusion of the two disparate worlds that Sara Crewe, our young protagonist, inhabits.

Director/Choreographer Dexter Martinez Santos paints a versatile brush, employing a large ensemble in a diverse compositional framework. In multiple dance sequences, principals are made to blend seamlessly with a strong supporting cast (in spectacular African garb) as a way to animate the storytelling. The result is a vibrant staging exhibit that defies conventional symmetry.

Hats off also for a feat seldom referenced in a production of this magnitude: Children are steered in a way Sanford Meisner would approve, which is to "behave truthfully in imaginary circumstances." Not only must young actors navigate their characters' collective conflict; they must buy into Sara's story within the play's given circumstances, frequently yielding to an imagined "fourth wall" to convey the image. It's an invaluable piece of training for young actors, thanks to a director who inspires the imagery where only a seated crowd exists.

BWW Review: REP's 'A Little Princess' Pulls Out All The StopsA Little Princess chronicles the young life of Sara Crewe (Jillian Ita-as), an English girl whose rich father sends her away from Africa--where she has been living--to a London boarding school as he leaves on a mission to explore the fearsome land of Timbuktu.

Sara was raised in luxury by her single father (Noel Rayos), who fostered her ability to think and behave like a princess. But despite her privileged status, she endears herself to her new friends in London, undoubtedly due to her magnanimous and elegant disposition--like a true princess. Laconic and well-mannered, she treats even the least desirable member of the school with dignity.

Miss Minchin (Roselyn Perez), the school's diabolical headmistress, scorns Sara privately, though she manages to feign her public affection because of Sara's influential father. He manifests his wealth in absentia, availing Sara of special services other students can't afford.

News of Captain Crewe's untimely death in Africa marks the shift in the power structure. The attendant report of the Captain's alleged financial collapse leaves Sara a pauper and a slave to Miss Minchin. Left with no other option, she is forced to live in the boarding school's cold attic and to perform hard labor to earn her stay.

Cue survival strategy: Sara's vigorous imagination keeps her soul intact and sustains her gallant hope that her father is alive somewhere and will return as promised. She keeps a doll given by her father to remind her of the magic imbued by his love, as she embraces its symbol of the African world she left behind. The doll, in fact, becomes the play's metaphor for bridging the gaps in our fractured lives.

BWW Review: REP's 'A Little Princess' Pulls Out All The StopsAt best, Sara's relationship with Miss Minchin is inflexible and comes to a hard collision one evening, sending Sara to her attic room in shame. She begins to lose hope and falls asleep with her spirit at rock bottom. The next morning she wakes to find Pasko, a long-lost family friend who helps her escape the attic--and Miss Minchin. She returns to the boarding house another day to confront Miss Minchin, who is being arrested at the behest of Queen Victoria.

The Queen's surprise appearance at the boarding house is the stuff children's fantasies are made of. It's Burnett's deus ex machina: the least likely character arrives to resolve the conflict and sweeps the schoolgirls off from their oppressed slumber. Her Highness restores order and concludes the story with a bold proclamation: "Anyone can be a princess if their hearts are open and their actions are true."

It's classic schmaltz, you bet, and there's plenty of cheese to go around--a children's story, after all. And what makes this story defy the occasional sclerotic spell is REP's fine group of young actors with a commitment level which rivals that of their seasoned veterans. (To boot, they've even managed to sport a respectable British accent.)

With Jillian Ita-as in the title role, the play is anchored by a talent with a broad emotional range. Not only is she a confident lyric mezzo, she's a thinking actor with a strong impulse for acting beats. Stakes are high, yet she remains cool on the outside while navigating Sara's growing internal struggle. (She could, however, afford to plunge deeper into desolation after the final encounter with Miss Minchin.)

BWW Review: REP's 'A Little Princess' Pulls Out All The StopsNoel Rayos turns in a grounded performance as Sara's doting father, displaying a stoic elegance befitting a national hero. Rayos' duet with Ita-as (Soon, My Love) marks the first authentic moment between two characters. This is significant if we are to remember Captain Crewe--and if we are to be complicit in Sara's intense longing for his return.

On the other hand, Roselyn Perez has yet to achieve the pure and necessary evil of Miss Minchin. Although sufficient vulnerability reveals the childhood pain that caused her hard exterior, we find ourselves privy to it much too early. Freud's id comes to mind and may find its apt expression in Miss Minchin's abusive treatment of the girls. A more hateful Minchin, with controlled menace, can go a long way in developing catharsis for those girls.

Other actors with memorable performances: Natalie Everett as Miss Minchin's kinder, younger sister; Lance Robredo as the mercurial and lovable Pasko, and Cara Barredo as Aljana--her dazzling aura as an African ensemble lead (and as Queen Victoria) is worth the wait between extended scenes.

Santos's dancers are to be commended for high-energy precision and for creating a nuanced African flavor. Likewise, the supporting young cast of Miss Minchin's boarding house has created a spirited community despite Minchin's iron hand: Gabby Padilla as Lavinia, Liviana Gonzales as Becky, and Myung Sun Kim as Ermengarde. And keep an eye out for the exciting future of a talented upstart in Sophia Volante, who plays Lottie. Few actors this young can take over a scene like she does.

It's fitting to conclude with high praise for the technical underpinning of REP's season finale. Mio Infante's wisely conceived set design provides the aesthetic function of bridging two far-flung locations. Three conjoined levels allow for fluid scenic changes, with a shape-shifting staircase and portable interior pieces on call to suggest various rooms of the boarding house.

John Batalla's lighting design is a feature to be exalted: five moving heads are installed modestly enough overhead as to remain inconspicuous, yet gorgeous transitions are constantly happening because of them. Intelligent lighting has the power to easily undermine a scene; Batalla's intimate application simply enhances.

BWW Review: REP's 'A Little Princess' Pulls Out All The StopsRaven Ong's Victorian costumes set our mood for Burnett's exposition, while his vibrant African ensemble stuns in contrast. Jethro Joaquin's sound design provides a strong, authentic compliment to a cohesive live orchestra conducted by music director Ejay Yatco. In the fanciful world of queens and princesses, those pit musicians are the unsung royalty.

Go forth--and bring the family. REP has pulled out all the stops on this one. A Little Princess is a holiday feast to affirm familial bonds. What this musical gives abundantly in production more than compensates for what it lacks in form.

REP's production of A Little Princess runs at Onstage Theater, Greenbelt One, in Makati City until Sunday, December 18.

For tickets, call REP at (632) 843-3570 or 584-8458 or TicketWorld at (632) 891-9999

Photos: Paolo Ruiz

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