A youngster suddenly alone

An old story renewed at New Salem’s Theatre in the Park

click to enlarge A youngster suddenly alone
Photos courtesy of theatre in the park
Cora McMann is Sara and Andy Vandervoort plays her father, Captain Crewe.

A Victorian-era novel is next on stage as Theatre in the Park at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site is back producing outdoor theater after a two-summer absence. The show is A Little Princess, based on the 1905 children's book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, opening this week, running June 10-12 and 16-18 at 8 p.m.

The classic book is a favorite from the childhood of director Cari Wilmert of Lincoln.

"The story has lessons that resonate with me. It's about grace and kindness under pressure and choosing to be a voice of good in the face of negativity," she says.

The story of a young orphan who faces insurmountable challenges has always been a staple, and Burnett began this one as a serial for St. Nicholas Magazine in 1887-88 as "Sara Crewe: or What Happened at Miss Minchin's." A play was eventually produced, even before the novel was published in 1905. The author had a bestseller on her hands and she later wrote another children's classic, The Secret Garden, in 1911.

I saw a rehearsal nine days before the show's opening and the first thing I noticed was a completely rebuilt front area of the multitiered stage. This is one of the improvements Theatre In the Park's Kari Catton, executive director, has on her wish list before her retirement at the end of this season.

Cora McMann, a seventh-grader from nearby Pleasant Plains, plays the lead role of young Sara Crewe, with Cathy Doyle of Rushville as Miss Minchin. Andy Vandevoort plays Sara's father, Captain Crewe.

This new stage adaptation of A Little Princess is a musical version with a script by Michael Hjort and music score by Camille N. Curtis that premiered in 2000. They have transported this version from Victorian times to the years around World War II. The plot remains the same, as young Sara is sent to a boarding school in London while her father is away at war, and all of the challenges she encounters there, especially with headmistress Miss Minchin.

What is it about these stories from the 19th and early 20th centuries (Burnett was born in 1845) that resonates for young people today? Or does it? The plot of the youngster suddenly alone in the world has been a tried-and-true device from David Copperfield to Annie. The young people in this production give their all in performing this story.

It is also refreshing to hear a musical score that is new. This one has some beautiful music, fun group numbers and also has a WWII boogie-woogie vibe throughout. In some ways, the show has an old operetta feel. There are some great moments of strong choral performances, especially a goosebumps number at the end of Act One, with the cast interspersed throughout the audience area.

Kari Catton took the reins of Theatre in the Park in the summer of 2004. Regarding her retirement: "I'm looking forward to this. I have many other things to accomplish!"

For tickets, call 217-632-5440 or find them on the TIP website: www.theatreinthepark.net. As always, a pre-show takes place at 7 p.m. in the indoor theater.

I have to mention the 16-member ensemble of The Laramie Project, recently seen at the Hoogland Center by M.A.S.S. Media Productions. Seeing the play 20 years after it was first staged hit home the importance that the Matthew Shepard story continue to be told for new generations.

Phil Funkenbusch is a theater-maker who lives in Havana, Illinois. He can be reached at funkenbuschp@gmail.com.

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