The original story is by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the stage adaptation by June Walker Rogers, but the latest production at the Laguna Playhouse bears a striking resemblance to one Charles Huffman Dickens.
“A Little Princess,” being staged by the playhouse’s Youth Theater, exudes that melodramatic Victorian atmosphere so prevalent in Dickens’ works, not to mention the maddening British preoccupation with “class.” As she did in “The Secret Garden,” Burnett laces her story with frequent references to India where both the little girls central to these sagas experienced their early lives. However, while Mary of “Garden” was spoiled rotten before readjusting, Burnett’s “Little Princess” character, Sarah, is thoroughly endowed with lovable qualities throughout.
Director Kelly Herman’s attractive if syrupy production emphasizes the contrasts between the saintly Sarah (Syd Ames) and the two principal antagonists at her high-end London school, the bratty Lavinia (VyVy Tran) and the institution’s fierce old crocodile of a headmistress, Miss Minchin (Margaret Vandenberghe). Sarah isn’t forced to go it alone, however. She has two staunch allies — the foodaholic Ermengarde (Melissa Nichols) and the sweet young servant Becky (Allison Gerstley). They’re in her corner both before and after she loses her fortune due to her father’s death and is forced to work in the school as a domestic.
Miss Minchin is assisted by her scatterbrained sister Amelia (Claire Day), who provides whatever comedy relief is available in such an exercise. Jonathan Motil does double duty as Sarah’s father and the solicitor who ultimately helps set things right.
Ames is particularly appealing as both the troubled central character and the optimistic narrator of this novelistic production. While her role is one-dimensional as written, the young actress expands her interpretation nicely, principally in the play’s second act.
Vandenberghe has the meatiest assignment as a sort of upper-class version of “Annie’s” Miss Hannigan, steamrolling through the show with grim determination. Nichols is delightful as the overeating Ermengarde, while Tran revels in her high-toned nastiness.
Chris Holmes has designed four spare-looking staging areas — two for each act — which emphasize the Victorian period. Dwight Richard Odle’s costumes are most effective, stressing simplicity over style.
Unlike some of the more fantasy-themed children’s plays, “A Little Princess” primarily hews to a harsh reality befitting a modern era where pennies often must be pinched.
The 20-member Laguna company, most of whom are children, carries off this mission admirably.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “A Little Princess”
WHERE: Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater
WHEN: Closing performances at 7:30 tonight, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday
COST: $16 to $20
CALL: (949) 494-2787
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.