What a drag. Your dad's a superstar chosen by People magazine as "the sexiest man alive. " And he sends you to a pricey boarding school...

Share story

What a drag. Your dad’s a superstar chosen by People magazine as “the sexiest man alive.” And he sends you to a pricey boarding school so you won’t date a dreamy film stud. And you get the lead in the school musical because you’re, like, the best actress in the whole place.

Those are some of the bummers facing poor Miranda Finck in “Princesses.” And the notion that Miranda’s highly privileged dilemmas are compelling enough to sustain a Broadway musical is one of the major shortcomings in this expensive misfire, now in a pre-Broadway tryout run at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.

Though slick, chirpy and exuberantly performed by a largely youthful cast, led by the appealing, power-voiced Jenny Fellner as Miranda, “Princesses” seems to have emerged from a marketing database.

While Hollywood gears much of its film fare toward male adolescents, Broadway is vigorously courting 10- to 14-year-old girls. But “Princesses” displays neither the dynamic theatricality or emotional tug of the shows it resembles most, on paper, anyway: the current hit “Wicked” (also set in a girls’ school, albeit for witches) and “The Secret Garden” (an earlier but much-revived tuner based on a classic Victorian novel).


The musical plays Tuesdays-Sundays through Aug. 28 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle, $18-$70. (206-292-ARTS or www.ticketmaster.com)

“Princesses” wants it both ways: bratty and wholesome. It recycles the images of viper-tongued pubescent girls so ubiquitous in TV sitcoms, lesser Disney movies and pop-music videos. And it awkwardly borrows the innocence of “A Little Princess” (another poor-little-rich-girl tale by “Secret Garden” author Frances Hodgson Burnett) for a show-within-a-show gambit.

Juxtaposing those two visions of girlhood is a promising premise. But the glib, underplotted book for “Princesses” (by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner) and the hodgepodge score (composed by Matthew Wilder, with lyrics by David Zippel, who also directs the piece), strain for “tween” coolness. And good intentions aside, they sell the imagination and intelligence of their target audience short.

From the opening song (a sweetly harmonized choral ode that morphs into a snappy, snippy pop tune, “Saved By the Bell”), “Princesses” conjures stereotypes behaving in prefab, even blatantly idiotic, ways.

Miranda’s Reardon School classmates are a generic collection of pudgy semi-outcasts, sardonic hippies and Paris Hilton-blond tramps-in-training. They quip about butt waxing and Prada handbags, gripe about Reardon (which, apropos a song lyric, resembles both a cement jail block and a shopping mall in Douglas W. Schmidt’s scenic design), and dutifully line up to execute Rob Ashford’s calisthenic dances.

Their instructor, Ms. Libby Nibbey (Donna English), is surely one of the squarest music teachers on earth. In “Music Appreciation,” this dowdy arts advocate yearns to get her charges excited about “classical” composers like Stephen Sondheim, when they can’t get enough Britney and Brandy.(Brandy? She is sooooo yesterday … )

Miranda’s celeb squeeze Zachary Tanner (woodenly played by Storm Newton) is a pumped-up airhead, who drops by to croon a neo-R&B tune, “Just Say Yes,” and invite his underaged cutie to shack up with him in Paris. (She’s jailbait! Hello!)

And if Miranda’s matinee-idol father Kevin is depicted with unfailing good humor and in strapping voice by Brent Barrett, he doesn’t add up either. This action star with Shakespeare chops can’t muster a decent British accent. And he’s such a neglectful dad, he calls Miranda often, visits her at school and offers to direct and act in Reardon’s “A Little Princess” musical.

Fellner gives Miranda a shimmer of sincerity between bouts of sulkiness. But the girl’s grief over the recent death of her mother barely registers. And her Freudian-lite ups and downs with her dad seem largely, well, normal.

The only other plot-driver in “Princesses” is the school show, which must have gobbled much of the production budget for Schmidt’s picture-book painted sets, illuminated by lighting designer Ken Billington and William Ivey Long’s flouncy Victorian party frocks.

Yet in this realm, too, the sentiments are basically banal. In the backstage number “Butterflies,” we learn auditions are scary. In “What A Drag,” girls bemoan getting cast as boys. And in “Magic Time,” Kevin touts the thrill of live theater.

To be fair, there are some amusing one-liners and catchy song hooks here. And Zippel’s cleverness as a lyricist who can profitably rhyme “vixen” with “Nixon” is never in doubt. A funny (and sexless) tango for Kevin and a newly bold Ms. Nibbey, and a couple of zestful supporting turns by Marissa Perry and Lindsay Mendez are also in the plus column.

But up to and including the finale, a schmaltzy father-daughter bonding duet titled “I Will Never Leave You,” this highly derivative tuner too often settles for formulaic shallowness. “Princesses” is yet another entertainment that trivializes teen girls, a population that truly deserves better.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com