Review: The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ at Camden Repertory Theatre

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The Twelve Dancing Princesses, an original musical being presented by Camden Rep, teaches its young audience lessons about love, strength, forgiveness, and family ties. It also has a peppy score and a lot of energetic dancing that those young audiences will be sure to enjoy.

Terri Bagewell. Photo by Kamile Kuntz Photography.

Based on Rachel Isadora’s children’s book (which in turn was adapted from a Brothers Grimm tale), The Twelve Dancing Princesses concerns the daughters of a proud and imperious African king. Wanting the best for his daughters, he buys them fine shoes – but every morning when the daughters wake up, their shoes are worn out. What’s causing this odd behavior? The King offers a reward to whoever can find out the secret of the shoes – but it turns out the princesses have some secrets of their own.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses has a lot to catch the eye. Costume Designer Nala Johnson has provided a wide array of colorful, dynamic outfits for the princesses. And Lamar Baylor’s dynamic choreography – blending traditional African elements with hip-hop and Broadway flash – gives the show a boatload of energy. (Tenenfig Dioubate, who plays Princess Ife, is credited with the African Dance choreography.)

The cast rises to the occasion. Carlo Campbell gave a strong mixture of kindness, assertiveness and nobility to the role of the King on opening night (Campbell alternates with Hassan Sabree in the role). Terri Bagwell, as the Griot (a storyteller who serves as the show’s narrator), showed off a remarkably rich voice on “Every Shut Eye.” And while the princesses are all appealing, India Marie Cross makes a strong impression as the petulant Ghazal.

Jamal P. Dickerson wrote the music and lyrics, and also conducts the orchestra. He’s contributed some catchy tunes (like the second act opener “Drink Up”) and lyrics (on “You Are Royalty” and “I Am a Princess”) that not only emphasize the characters’ dignity and self-esteem but encourage those traits in the viewers. And the book by Desi Shelton (who also directed) makes these concepts easy to grasp for younger viewers.

Carlo Campbell (center) and the Princesses. Photo by Kamile Kuntz Photography.

The opening night performance had a few kinks to work out. The percussion-heavy orchestra frequently drowned out the actors, making the lyrics, dialogue and plot hard to follow at times. And the cast is so large – there are nearly three dozen actors onstage, including the dancing ensemble – that the production sometimes seemed unfocused. Several times when an actor said a line of dialogue, I had to scan my eyes back and forth across the stage to figure out who was talking. Perhaps some lighting that spotlights the actors while they’re speaking could make things clearer. But hopefully these things will be worked out later in the run.

All in all, The Twelve Dancing Princesses is a strong presentation that will entertain kids and teach them a few lessons too. And grown-ups will appreciate the strong performances and exuberant dancing.

In the song “Hard to Get,” the King sings “My girls are special.” This show proves him right.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, including an intermission.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses plays through December 18, 2016 at The Camden Repertory Theatre, performing at the Walter K. Gordon Theater – 314 Linden Street, in Camden, NJ. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online.

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