Emerson Steele shines in ‘A Little Princess’

Now hear this, “Nutcracker” kiddos. You aren’t the only game in town.

Theatrical Outfit’s “A Little Princess,” by the musical-writing team of Andrew Lippa and Brian Crawley, is a splendid opportunity to see some of city’s finest young talent, and some seasoned pros, too.

Emerson Steele, the 16-year-old Alpharetta resident who has appeared on Broadway and made her New York cabaret debut, straddles both categories. In the role of Sara Crewe, the titular character at the center of this adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 children’s novel, she is impossibly lovely and luminous.

She is, alas, trapped in a rather long-winded spectacle in need of an editor’s pencil.

As envisioned by Lippa and Crawley, “A Little Princess,” which flips back and forth between 1838 England and Captain Crewe’s exploits in Africa, feels a bit like “The Lion King” meets Sondheim meets “Annie.” That’s not a criticism. However cross-referencing, the songs themselves are beautiful.

But director Mira Hirsch’s ambitious project for 19 actors and an eight-person band clocks in at a little over 2 ½ hours, and Crawley’s book feels longer than a journey to Timbuktu, where Captain Crewe goes to make his fortune.

There’s a lot going on here: African interludes, an evil school mistress, a passel of children who will befriend and taunt Sara as her luck rises and falls to the beat of glorious song and dance. (Choreography is by Ricardo Aponte.) Sara endures a hard-knock life, from riches to rags and back again, yet she is never anything less than regal.

I can’t say enough good things about Hirsch’s remarkable youngsters, including Brenna McConnell as spark plug Becky, Laughton Berry as Pasko and the elegant Mary Caroline Owens as Nora. Christie Baggett (as the horrible Miss Minchin), Molly Coyne (Miss Amelia) and Bryant Smith (Captain Crewe) aren’t too shabby, either.

Thanks to the overlapping African and British threads, the show can be hard to follow at first, and, often, the exotic elements feel tacked on. (For the record, Burnett’s novel was set in India, not Africa.)

When things go poorly for Captain Crewe, Sara’s story takes on a Cinderella air, but she persists in the face of trouble, taking her father’s advice to “Soldier On” (and on and on, as it were). By the end, we’ve heard echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan and “Wicked” and witnessed an appearance by a young Queen Victoria (Mary Nye Bennett).

On the design side, Elizabeth Rasmusson’s period costumes are nicely done, and Jon Nooner’s set — featuring a nice little attic perch for Sara and her friends — is handsome.

But what makes this musical memorable are the sparkling performances by the Atlanta kids. In Emerson, they have a role model of success; in Sara, an emblem of strength and persistence.

That’s a powerful gift, and, in a season clogged with familiar material, it’s refreshing to see a classic wrapped up like a pretty new package.

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