The basic story is so familiar it might even be called formulaic: a young girl with an indomitable spirit and a lively imagination grows up in a cruel orphanage, dreaming of a life of glamor.
“Hetty Feather,” which is in the midst of its U.S. premiere, in an innovative production from Sarasota’s Asolo Repertory Theater, succeeds despite its oft-told narrative.
And it succeeds not just for its intended young audience. Literate kids will no doubt love the show’s characters and be swept up in the story, which they probably won’t find as predictable as their parents might, and they’ll appreciate the circus backdrop to the show.
Grown-ups are going to be bowled over by the relentlessly inventive way in which the story is told, the delightful music and the excellent acting and stage craft.
“Hetty Feather” comes from a juvenile novel by Dame Jacqueline Wilson, one of Great Britain’s most popular writers of juvenile fiction. The book was overwhelmingly popular in England, and it gave birth to several sequels, a television series and this stage show.
The title character is born into extreme poverty, and her single mother reluctantly turns her over to a Victorian-era orphanage called the Foundling Hospital. She’s told she can never see her daughter again. The policy of the “hospital” is to farm out the kids to paid foster parents. But when the kids are 5 years old, they come back to the hospital, where they stay until they’re grown.
Hetty is given her name, which is meant to be demeaning, at the hospital when she’s an infant. She lives happily, though not without conflict, in her foster home, with a loving “mother” and children she believes are her siblings. She returns to the orphanage, where she’s miserable but still spirited. She briefly escapes and experiences a circus, and becomes convinced that the aerialist, who shares her distinctive red hair, is her birth mother.
The stage version has six actors playing all the roles, often portraying several characters in the same scene. A male actor might plays a man, a woman and child within the space of a few seconds. Somehow, the actors and director Sally Cookson make it easy for the audience to keep up.
It’s kind of a musical, but more like a play with music. The music comes from a wonderful two-person band (Seamus M. Carey and Luke Potter) who are usually just slightly offstage. It sounds as though there’s a much larger ensemble playing.
Chloe Mantripp, a British circus artist, plays Hetty all all ages except infancy. She’s quite fine in the role, but you might wish for a little more magnetism from the title character.
It’s kind of a musical, but more like a play with music. The music comes from a two-person band (Seamus M. Carey and Luke Potter) who are usually just slightly offstage. It sounds as though there’s a much larger ensemble playing.
Even though “Hetty Feather” is meant to be a kids show, or at least a family show, it’s difficult to recommend it for young children. It’s closer in tone to a Dickens novel than to “Annie,” and there’s some serious abuse of children in the story. The abuse is mostly implied and it’s never graphic, but still there are some very dark moments in the show.
The show is also longer than most children’s shows, well over two hours, and the first act drags a bit, even for adults. (The second act is more quickly paced and emotionally enthralling.)
Some sources recommend “Hetty Feather” for children from age 7. Others say 9 or 10. The author said she intended the books for ages 11-15.
There’s nothing objectionable, and most kids should love it. Any adults who appreciate innovative performing arts should be be enthralled.
Details: Through June 23, Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 7 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday. $18-$56. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.