Sarah Plain and Tall

It's a mixed blessing that "Sarah Plain and Tall," the stellar musical adaptation of Patricia McLachlan's young-adult novel, is being marketed to "family audiences." On one hand, the label correctly suggests the show -- with music by Laurence O'Keefe, lyrics by Nell Benjamin and book by Julia Jordan -- is appropriate for kids. On the other, it may frighten older, childless crowds who dread the thought of cutesy songs and pandering moral lessons.

With:
Anna - Kate Wetherhead Caleb - Gene Biscontini Jacob - Herndon Lackey Matthew, William - Kenneth Boys Sarah - Becca Ayers Estelle, Maggie - Heather Ayers

It’s a mixed blessing that “Sarah Plain and Tall,” the stellar musical adaptation of Patricia McLachlan’s young-adult novel, is being marketed to “family audiences.” On one hand, the label correctly suggests the show — with music by Laurence O’Keefe, lyrics by Nell Benjamin and book by Julia Jordan — is appropriate for kids. On the other, it may frighten older, childless crowds who dread the thought of cutesy songs and pandering moral lessons. And that would be the grownups’ loss, since “Sarah” is not merely excellent children’s theater. It is excellent theater, period.

Produced by Theaterworks, this staging nearly mimics the company’s 2002 premiere, retaining director Joe Calarco, the design team and most of the cast. Getting the old gang together was a very good idea, since everyone evinces a deep understanding of the material’s subtle heart.

On one level, the production tells the story of Sarah (Becca Ayers), a fiery New Englander in the 19th century whose family forces her to answer the “wife wanted” ad of a stoic Kansas farmer (Herndon Lackey). Thanks to the rich lyrics and book, the couple’s courtship offers poignant insight on those afraid that loving someone else will mean losing themselves.

Equal depth is given to the farmers’ children — Anna (Kate Wetherhead) and Caleb (Gene Biscontini) — whose grief over their dead mother and halting desire to love a new one are written with rich detail.

Really, though, “Sarah Plain and Tall” is about much more than its story. The larger subject here is hope: the desperate wish for loneliness to be replaced by unconditional acceptance.

We’re shown that when loneliness lasts for years — when, say, your mother has died or your family has told you you’re too improper to be a New England lady — it can burrow deep into your life, making it hard to accept happiness when it arrives. With astonishing insight, “Sarah” demonstrates those shaky first steps away from familiar pain.

The cast, of course, clarifies the journey. Ayers makes a striking heroine, mastering both Sarah’s genuine kindness and her insecure need to be liked. And Wetherhead shines as she navigates Anna’s teenage confusion, displaying a richly emotional singing voice.

Throughout, O’Keefe’s elegant melodies complement the singers’ voices. Even without Benjamin’s sharp lyrics, the evocative sound of the songs would tell us how the show was developing.

The creatives place these elements in a world that supports the plot while evoking something bigger. Calarco invites us to see past the script’s realism with his symbolic mise en scene, particularly using suggestive tableaux. For instance, Biscontini often sits on the massive window at the back of Michael Fagin’s set, staring at a painted-backdrop sky. Calarco slows the action for a moment to frame the boy, as though he were a portrait of someone longing to escape.

Framed, too, by Chris Lee’s dreamlike lighting, such images have a sophisticated theatrical power. And Calarco knows to tease our imaginations by only letting them linger for a moment.

But the most palpable theatrical conceit is the cloth. Long bolts of it, colored orange or blue and lightly imprinted with sunflowers, are stretched across the stage to suggest hay bales or rushing water. Unobtrusively, the fabric represents the growth these characters crave. And when bits of it reappear during the final scene, this tuner’s charming picture feels complete.

Sarah Plain and Tall

Lucille Lortel Theater; 199 seats; $35 top

Production: A Theaterworks NYC presentation of a musical in one act with music by Laurence O'Keefe, lyrics by Nell Benjamin and book by Julia Jordan, based on the novel by Patricia McLachlan. Directed by Joe Calarco. Music direction, Jono Mainelli.

Creative: Set, Michael Fagin; costumes, Anne Kennedy; lighting, Chris Lee; sound, Eric Shim; orchestrations, Laurence O'Keefe; production stage manager, Emily N. Wells. Opened March 19, 2006. Reviewed April 12. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.

Cast: Anna - Kate Wetherhead Caleb - Gene Biscontini Jacob - Herndon Lackey Matthew, William - Kenneth Boys Sarah - Becca Ayers Estelle, Maggie - Heather Ayers

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