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BYU's charming 'Princess Academy' teaches empowering lessons

“PRINCESS ACADEMY,” June 4-6 and 10-13, Pardoe Theatre, Harris Fine Arts Center, BYU (801-422-2981 or arts.byu.edu/princess-academy); running time: 2 hours (one intermission)

PROVO — Miri of Mount Eskel may be small, but she finds she can exert great influence for good in BYU's “Princess Academy,” a new stage adaptation of Utah author Shannon Hale’s Newbery Honor-winning novel that premiered May 29.

Playwright Lisa Hall Hagen, director Megan Sanborn Jones and dramaturg Janine Sobeck collaborated to condense Hale's 300-page book into a lovingly staged two-hour play. The result is a charming production that presents audiences with empowering themes about the value of education, courage and kindness.

Forbidden by her father to work in the quarry mining linder stone with the other villagers, 14-year-old Miri, played by Aubrey Wilde, decides he must think she's too weak to be useful. Though saddened by the exclusion, she finds joy in tending goats on the mountainside.

When a delegate from the capital arrives and announces the kingdom's future princess will be selected from among the girls of Mount Eskel, Miri and other village girls are required to attend a "princess academy" for training.

Under the instruction — and at times, tyranny — of the over-the-top Tutor Olana, played with gusto by Heather Jones, the girls are faced with many obstacles — including several they place themselves. As their competition gradually gives way to cooperation, the girls find friendship and strength in one another, unlock powerful secrets and succeed against dire circumstances — from final exams to a fancy ball to a faceoff with mountain bandits.

Wilde portrays a spunky, exuberant Miri, and each of the other academy attendees shines with her own distinct personality. Particularly powerful performances come from Meagan Flinders as Katar, a bully whose behavior becomes more understandable over time, and Leah Hodson as Frid, the strongest of the girls but also the most literal — and the most accidentally funny.

Clever casting allows many ensemble members to fill additional, unexpected roles. For example, each subject taught in the academy — poise, diplomacy, commerce, etc. — is personified, lending opportunities for further humor. And Miri's goat, played by Logan G. Ruesch, has a tendency to talk back — to the great delight of the children in the audience.

The set is kept simple with its single mountain backdrop. Varied lighting, sound and props help set the different scenes, and several creative embellishments show the changing seasons. The colorful costumes help make each girl distinct, and the "Academy Princess" gown is a shimmering, sparkling, silvery dream.

A few song and dance numbers add rhythm and fun as they serve to show the strong ties between the Eskelites as well as the foundation for the quarry-speech through which the villagers can communicate.

The Pardoe Theatre is a fairly large venue for a production that doesn't use microphones, so audience members may want to sit closer to the front to better hear all of the lines.

Like the linder the Eskelites carve from the mountain, “Princess Academy” is a beautiful treasure that could shine even brighter with a little more polishing.

Regardless of their familiarity with the source material, audience members of all ages will find plenty to be charmed by in this whimsical adaptation.

Email: rbrutsch@deseretnews.com