Under the banner “La Belle Epoque” the Princeton Festival is presenting a season that includes an opera, a musical comedy, a jazz program, a chamber music concert, a piano competition, and an organ recital. The opening salvo (if we ignore the preliminaries for the piano competition) was the musical comedy “Mirette,” with lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, the pair responsible for the record-breaking “Fantasticks,” the world’s longest-running musical. The book for “Mirette” is by Elizabeth Diggs and is based on the Caldicott Medal winning children’s book “Mirette on the High Wire” by Emily Arnold McCully, a friend and classmate of Diggs. “Mirette,” Jones’s and Schmidt’s most recent piece, had its first performance at the Sundance Festival in 1994 and its New York premiere in 2005.
The musical is set in Paris in the 1890s and tells the tale of the 10-year-old Mirette’s discovery of herself. Mirette’s mother, Madame Gateau, runs a boarding house frequented by actors and singers and is determined that her daughter follow in her footsteps and become a responsible business woman. The boarders are a sociable group except for one newcomer who keeps to himself and only leaves his room to practice walking on a tightrope placed close to the ground. It turns out this sullen newcomer is Bellini, once a world-famous tightrope walker, who suffered a failure of nerve and retired. Mirette is fascinated by what he is doing and eventually breaks down his reserve and, much to her mother’s horror, persuades him to teach her how to walk a tightrope.
Mirette’s obvious talent and positive attitude are exhilarating for Bellini, who eventually schedules a comeback performance. When his nerve again fails, Mirette climbs up on the rope and helps him regain his courage and finish his walk (with Mirette in his arms). The audience is left to assume that they will continue for many years to perform as a team.
The Princeton Festival is using a variety of venues for the 2008 season. “Mirette” is being performed in the intimate Matthews Acting Studio of the university’s 185 Nassau Street building. “Mirette” is part of the festival’s Young Stars Showcase productions, which means that many of the performers are young and thus without extensive experience under their belts. The small orchestra (six players on nine instruments) is part of the Young Stars Orchestra. Because of the size of the space the festival apparently did not find it necessary to mike any of the singers but Mirette.
Holding the production together in the title role is the amazing Reed Schmidt, a 12-year-old wonder from Burlington County. She is natural and charming on stage, and her lines are always clear (not always the case for some of the others). Schmidt, even at 12, is among the more experienced of the performers, as is Bellini, played by Righteous Jolly. He has the stage presence necessary for his role, as does Mirette’s mother, played by Maria Alu. Toward the end of the play Max, the impresario, played by Peter Kauzmann, who has 40 years of local theater under his belt, enters and sings his small part with an authority reflective of his extensive experience, an attention to pitch, and a clarity of diction that unfortunately are missing from some of his less experienced colleagues.
Another star of the show is Matthew Campbell, the set designer. He has used the limited space to great effect, and created for Madame Gateau’s boarding house an elegant living room with wonderful looking wooden furniture. Marie Miller is responsible for the colorful costumes, which bring home the Belle Epoque theme of the production. And someone must have decided the costumes were important enough to engineer a costume change during the curtain calls. Geoff McDonald is the conductor, Nathan Brewer the director. Lighting design is by Carson Gross, wig and makeup design by Kelley Tharp.
“Mirette” is performed without intermission and lasts about one hour. This was clearly a popular choice for the festival: opening night was sold out, and the remaining two performances are also sold out.
Mirette, Friday, June 20, 8 p.m., and Saturday, June 28, 3 p.m., Princeton Festival, Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street. Sold out. www.princetonfestival.org. or 800-595-4849.