“Princesses” is “Mean Girls” wrapped around “Annie” — a sassy, contemporary girl-power comedy framing a traditional musical with a heart of gold. Though that might sound promising in a pitch meeting, it poses a tough challenge for the show. Do the hipsters who embraced the cool satire of “Mean Girls” really want to see a wholesome musical for families in which the sun will come out tomorrow — and vice versa? Even people who like Hollywood irony and Broadway sentimentality may have difficulty processing both in quick succession.
The conceit of “Princesses” is that a mousy music teacher (Donna English) in a private girls school in Upstate New York (that’s the “Mean Girls” part) decides to produce a musical version of the beloved Frances Hodgson Burnett book “A Little Princess” (that’s the “Annie” part). The students, as imagined by TV scribes Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, are an array of teen stereotypes: the snobby fashionistas, the tough jocks, the nerdy brainiacs and the boho nonconformists.
Into this habitat is dropped Miranda (Jenny Fellner), the privileged daughter of neglectful movie star Kevin Finch (Brent Barrett). When Miranda assumes the lead role in “A Little Princess,” she finds her life paralleling that of the abandoned heiress in the Victorian novel.
The contemporary scenes are written with the verve and sharp pacing of topnotch TV comedy. (The Steinkellners won Emmy, Golden Globe and Writers Guild awards for their work on “Cheers.”)
These passages are funny if not always tasteful. Many of the jokes point to pop culture (Teacher: “I remember when Eminem was only candy”) or embarrassing body parts (Miranda laments being banished to “the upper butt crack of New York state”).
Others poke fun at contemporary life: One student says, “I don’t have a mom. Just two dads and an egg donor.” A number of gags take rather predictable potshots at gays and lesbians.
In contrast, the Victorian “Princess” musical numbers are written by Matthew Wilder (music) and David Zippel (lyrics) with tenderness and sincerity. The father/daughter love song “By Heart” is delivered with such sweet softness by Barrett and Fellner that it makes it hard to move back into the “real” world of the high school in the next scene.
The actor who suffers the most from the dueling gestalts of this musical is Barrett. An able and charismatic leading man, with the look of a slightly more boyish Hugh Jackman, Barrett is required to play the egomaniacal actor one moment for laughs, and the conscience-stricken father the next for tears.
In one scene he berates Miranda for interrupting a phone call from his agent; in the next, he abandons his entire career to direct her high school play. It’s no dig at Barrett to say even all his talents can’t straighten out the switchbacks in the script.
The hiking metaphor is useful here. It would not be a Sisyphean task to get this show prepped for Broadway (where it’s aimed, though no theater has been secured yet), but it’s not going to be a walk in the park, either.
In its favor: “Princesses” has a ton of Tony talent behind it. It’s produced by Stewart F. Lane (“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “La Cage Aux Folles”) and Bonnie Comley. Casting is strong across the board (particularly Barrett and Fellner, whose vocal chords you would not want to meet alone in an alley at night).
The nifty, “Hollywood Squares”-like set by Douglas W. Schmidt is simple but effective. And a few of Wilder and Zippel’s rock-and-soul musical numbers are real showstoppers — namely, the prim-teacher-gone-bad tango “Go There” and “What a Drag,” a comic lament performed by three misfit students (Lindsay Mendez, Sierra Boggess, Anne Letscher).
But the energy and fun of these numbers needs to carry through the show from beginning to end. As it is, the momentum is repeatedly hung up by the abrupt changes in tone, the sometimes static choreography, the unflattering costumes (Fellner’s baggy, layered look is particularly unsuited to her) or the occasional odd-man-out perf. Miranda’s hunky young love interest, Zachary Tanner (Storm Newton), for instance, looks and sounds as if he would be much more at home jiving in a Justin Timberlake video.
“Princesses” earned a warm reception from theatergoers on opening night at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater. The numerous young girls in the audience — the ones still young enough to see daddy as the love of their lives — seemed particularly enthusiastic at intermission.
As the nexus of the market for “Mean Girls” and “Annie,” those tweens may be the perfect target for this show. But there’s more polishing to be done before “Princesses” bows to a broader public.