Pasko, Becky, Aljana, Captain Crewe, and Sara (clockwise from top left: Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Nandi Drayton, Lexi Hart, Tyler McKenna and Katie Robbins) in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of Andrew Lippa’s A Little Princess, directed by Elizabeth McKoy. Photo: Ken Levin

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett was first published in book form in 1905 and has remained one of the most popular children’s books for more than 100 years. Three versions of the story have come to the big screen.

The theatricality of the story was limited, however, because the action is set in a girls’ boarding school in London during the Victorian era. The father of young Sara Crewe, fresh from living in India, enrolls her at Miss Minchin’s, a finishing school for young ladies. The wealthy Sara is friendly, generous, not snobbish, and becomes the darling of the school (even though Miss Minchin secretly hates her). She befriends the scullery maid and the school’s least popular girls, and uses her imagination to tell exotic stories.

Then calamity strikes. Sara’s father dies a pauper and she must earn her keep as a servant in the place where she once reigned as the unofficial princess. Miss Minchin abuses and starves her, yet Sara manages to rise above her circumstances and remain kind and loving.

Berkeley Playhouse’s exuberant production of A Little Princess tells this story, but adds a completely new dimension. Lyricist Brian Crawley and composer Andrew Lippa have re-conceived and re-imagined the tale, expanding it beyond the confines of Victorian England. Crewe’s past in India has been replaced by a past in Africa, which gives the writers ample opportunity to include lively African music and dance, exotic locales like Mali and Timbuktu, references to slavery, and tales of exploration into the unknown areas of Africa.

The result is almost like watching two Technicolor television shows on a split-screen: on one side are tales of England and on the other are tales of Africa. At times your head whips back and forth so fast it is confusing, but overall it makes for a much more interesting production than if only one story had been told.

Elizabeth McKoy, the director of A Little Princess and Berkeley Playhouse’s founding artistic director, takes full advantage of the possibilities, imbuing the musical with energy and passion and lots of marvelous dancing. McKoy came up with the idea of using shadow-dancing to bring Sara’s memories of colonial Africa to life. It was a brilliant move. The dancers don’t just use their hands to form animal shapes, they use their whole bodies. One minute the audience sees their silhouettes behind a white curtain; the next they see a palm tree or camel or giraffe or a hippopotamus.

Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won a Tony award for his role of Angel Dumott in the Broadway production of Rent, plays Pasko. Photo: Ken Levin

Among the cast of 66 – which includes 21 double-cast youth roles – is Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won a Tony award for his role of Angel Dumott in the Broadway production of Rent. Heredia plays Pasko, an African who accompanies Captain Crewe on his travels. Heredia is charismatic. When he sings, he lights up the theater. It is a coup that Berkeley Playhouse snared him; unfortunately he does not sing enough.

The cast is uniformly strong. Katie Robbins played Sara Crewe the day I saw A Little Princess; Dakota Dry alternates in the role. Robbins’ voice is lovely and she ably conveyed the passion and friendliness of Sara. Nandi Drayton did a terrific job as the scullery maid Becky and managed to maintain a British accent throughout the show. Leah Russo’s Miss Minchin was suitably reprehensible, yet the way she played her also let the audience understand why she may have turned out so cruel. Michele Schroeder was well cast as Miss Minchin’s sister, Miss Amelia, one of the few adults in London to show Sara any kindness. Tyler McKenna is dashing as Captain Crewe. Lexi Hart is a loving Aljana. Sienna Bogatin’s sneering Lavinia was a delight.

The Villagers of Saint Louis, Senegal bid Sara Crewe good luck on her journey to London in “Bonne Chance” from Berkeley Playhouse’s production of Andrew Lippa’s A Little Princess, directed by Elizabeth McKoy. Photo: Ken Levin

At times, the production is over-the-top, particularly during the song Timbuktu, in the second act when Captain Crewe and Queen Victoria appear as marionettes. I think this was supposed to be one of Sara’s dreams, although I was never sure.

This version of A Little Princess also features Queen Victoria (wonderfully performed by Maura Tang) as a character who comes to Sara’s rescue at the end. Her inclusion in the play feels far-fetched and appears to have been included just so little girls in the audience can see a “real” princess with a gauzy dress and a diamond tiara.

At two hours and 45 minutes, including intermission, Berkeley Playhouse’s production of A Little Princess may be hard to sit through for the very young. But older kids and parents will appreciate the music, colorful costumes, and terrific dancing. The play’s message is also a crowd-pleaser: be courteous, even when times are tough, be gracious, and help others, particularly those less fortunate. Sara Crew did and she is redeemed at the end.

A Little Princess plays at Berkeley Playhouse through Dec. 8. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m.; Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.; Sundays at noon and 5 p.m.

On Thanksgiving weekend there will be a show Friday Nov. 29th  and Saturday Nov. 30th at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.  On Sunday, Dec. 1, there will be a show at noon. Tickets are $17-$60.

Director: Elizabeth McKoy
Musical Director: Kevin Roland
Choreographer: Staci Arriaga
Costume Designer: Wendy Kaufman
Lighitng: Mark Hueske
Sets: Martin Flynn
Shadow Consultant: Miayka Cochrane

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...