Opening night of Sweet Tea Shakespeare‘s A Little Princess at Leggett Theatre on William Peace University‘s campus was overflowing with empathetic childhood experiences of making new friends, navigating loss, and submerging oneself in the joyful world of “supposing” and playing pretend. Based on the classic children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, produced by Jeremy Fiebig and directed and adapted by Nathalie Ray with dramaturg Maneesha Lassiter, this original reinvention of A Little Princess explores resilience through hardship and the power of one young girl’s imagination to change her world for the better. With a skilled cast of women at its helm and a lively costumed rat and monkey in the mix, this production is a perfectly balanced blend of fun moments full of stories and imagination, as well as serious considerations of bullying and the loss of one’s parents at a young age.

After an inventive, creative approach to telling the background tale of Ramayana – the same story that Sara Crewe (Jahnvi Patel) later shares with her friends – with cut paper shadow puppets on a white scrim, the play begins as Sara is brought from India to Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in London by her father, Captain Crewe (Anson Smith). Sara befriends the other pupils with her princess-esque demeanor, but she quarrels with the formidable headmistress, Miss Minchin (Jennifer Daly), who finds Sara’s constant politeness and optimism to be imprudent. When news arrives at the boarding school during Sara’s lavish eleventh birthday party that her father has died and his fortune has been seized, Miss Minchin does not delay in forcing Sara to relocate to the servants’ living quarters in the attic and work as a maid. Though faced with hunger, destitution, and degrading remarks from the headmistress, Sara sustains her friendships with the other girls, continues to put others before herself, and employs the power of imagining to suppose that the attic isn’t an attic but the French Bastille in Paris! The girls aren’t students but princesses in Buckingham Palace! Eventually, with the help his monkey, Hanuman (from the tale of Ramayana!), the new neighbor, Ram Dass (Deepak Dhar), is fruitful in his search for Sara after her father’s death, rescuing her and granting her wish of replacing Miss Minchin with Miss Amelia as the seminary’s headmistress. 

From her reluctance to leave her loving father to her wonderful poise and precision in her politeness, Patel’s Sara was the epitome of a little princess. Her personal warmth and kindness invigorated the character with an extra layer of charm. When fellow student Lotti (Maya Noor) is distraught with sadness about losing her mother and remains inconsolable by Miss Amelia (Laura Parker), Sara explains that Lotti’s mother is still found around her and offers to braid her hair just as her mother did. As Ermengarde (Melanie Payne) falls behind in her studies, Sara proposes to be her tutor, continuing lessons even after being reduced to maid status. When Lavinia (Katie Milligan) pokes and prods her with hateful words stemming from jealousy, Sara does not give in to the strife and instead includes Lavinia in the fun, inviting her to hear stories and play pretend with them all. And, catching the young maid Becky (Kameron Mills) asleep on the job, Sara resolves not to tattle but to convince Miss Minchin to allow Becky to join the fun of her eleventh birthday party.

Parallel to Patel’s portrayal of Sara’s elegance, Noor, Payne, Milligan, and Mills all exuded playful wonder accompanied with an air of defiance, a dash of impatience, and the unmistakable ability to see the good in the world. As Becky, Mills encapsulated what I understand to be the spirit of a young girl, unperturbed by life’s woes when engrossed in playing pretend. Milligan was particularly insightful and endearing; her portrayal of Lavinia beautifully juxtaposed her character’s jealousy-driven childhood insults with a deeper resonance and nuanced delivery. However, it was Daly as Miss Minchin and Parker as Miss Amelia who enraptured me wholly. To explain simply: Daly was a hoot! Her character is easily despised for her maltreatment of the girls, particularly her baseless hatred of Sara and Becky, but Daly invoked humor into the insults, commands, and observations that nearly erased their blunt and pointed intentions. I was similarly awed by Parker’s command of the role of Miss Amelia as she grappled with the conflict of the strict responsibilities doled out by Miss Minchin and her longing to dote on the girls. She splendidly gave her monologue at the conclusion of the play, conveying courageous conviction laced with slight fear for finally standing up to her sister, Miss Minchin.

I commend stage manager Cynthia Mandese, assistant stage manager Ally Fox, and light designer/operator Aaron Alderman for using the black box theater’s stage, set, and lighting to their advantage. Two rugs differentiate between various rooms in the seminary and the cast utilizes the space well, simulating walks through the school’s halls with singing marches around and between the rugs. Though creative in casting shadows on the white scrim, the opening scene narrating the Ramayana tale narrowly missed the mark in execution. The cut paper settings and character distinctions were slightly convoluted, resulting in some confusion around the tale’s details. However, as the show progressed, the purpose of the scene and the story itself became clearer with the continued thoughtful infusion of the Ramayana tale throughout the play.

Costumer Julia Rodriguez has coordinated a marvelous wardrobe of outfits, selecting costumes fit for each character that also complement one another. For Lavinia, an emerald green dress suited to her envy stands out and blends in simultaneously. To dramatize Sara’s fall from prosperous to pauper, her floral, layered fashion and bright bows were replaced with a plain, tattered dress and apron in the second act. 

As a tale of perseverance and the impact of maintaining an active, joyful imagination, Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s A Little Princess is the perfect show for prince, princess, king, queen, or any title your imagination wishes to add to your name. I am left with the thought that we could all benefit from a bit more “supposing” in our lives. For example, suppose that you are young again in the Victorian era celebrating Sara’s eleventh birthday with these joyful girls. Suppose that your commute to work is a leisurely ride down the Seine River and your stroll down the aisles of Walmart in search of laundry detergent is a meandering hunt for a hidden treasure in an old flea market in London. For my part, I suppose that there’s a glimmer of childhood spirit and lighthearted play in each and every local theatre production. As Sara proclaims, I suppose it and, therefore, it is real!

A Little Princess continues through Sunday, June 25. Be sure to arrive 30 minutes early to catch the live music pre-show prior to the start of the performance – Music Mantra played three soothing songs with traditional Indian instruments on opening night. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.

Up next for Sweet Tea Shakespeare are productions of Shakespeare in Love in Fayetteville from June 22 to July 2 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Raleigh from July 13 to July 23.