“The Secret Garden” is the title of the third children’s book by English author Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Written in 1911, along with the others — “The Little Princess” (1905) and “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (1885) — it has been, the basis for still-popular classic movies. The “Garden” however, is the only one to have made it to the Broadway stage as an award-winning musical.
I must admit before proceeding, that it — with everything by Stephen Sondheim — is one of my very favorite musicals. I am, therefore, extremely wary of any production and looked with a cautious eye (and ear) on the one which opened Friday evening (Oct. 12) in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Auditorium
There was no need to worry.
Director Jewel Abram-Copenhaver, assistant Linda Jung-Zimmerman and music director Roy Bronkema have assembled what sounds like the very best company — vocal-wise — from soloists to ensemble. This was not an easy task as several of the principals are in high school or younger. Difficult to tell actual ages as all performed with professional ease.
Lucy Simon’s music, coupled with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman’s book and lyrics, is strongly effective and each piece underscores the character who delivers it, adding yet another layer to the emotional scenario. Special applause to the ensemble which frequently serves as narrator and scene-setter and never lets a necessary word disappear. They are background when background is required and deliver solos with clarity and character.
Those unfamiliar with the book would do well to read the director’s program notes early on. The ensemble, all in white, is the people in Mary Lennox’s past. Stricken by a cholera epidemic in India, each death is signified by a red scarf. Mary (Madison Kopec/Annie Cummings) is the only survivor. As the action progresses, the “spirits” revisit the past events which have brought them to the present.
Mary is sent to England to her only living relative, Archibald Craven (Michael Ball), a hunchback and an embittered man, whose late wife Lily (Amanda Simon) was the sister of Mary’s mother Rose (Kat Quirk). Also at the Craven estate, Misselthwaite Manor, are the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Dawn Hagerty), the maid Martha (Lucy Barron), her brother Dickon (Bradon Allison) and the gardener, old Ben Weatherstaff (David Fordyce). As Mary eventually warms to Martha, Dickon and Ben, she becomes fascinated by the stories of a “secret” garden which belonged to Lily, was locked when she died, and the key thrown away.
Following the sound of crying in the night, Mary discovers her cousin Colin (Sean Bell), a spoiled, bad-tempered boy who is convinced he has inherited his father’s condition and is going to die. His uncle, Dr. Neville Craven (Daniel Gray), who also loved Lily, has charge of his restrictive care.
As the power of love exerts itself on the children, the adults and the garden, the score lifts the story line and offers lyrics that are more powerful than spoken dialogue. The “Opening Dream,” which serves as the overture, combining lyrical lines from Lily, Mary, the ensemble and an Indian Fakir (Kiana Blake), establishes past and present characters, locations and basic relationships.
It begins with Ms. Simon’s crystal clear soprano floating over the auditorium from her “ghostly” spot in the balcony, inviting all to “Come to my garden,” She is joined by the recently-orphaned Mary and, finally, by the ensemble as the action moves from India to the desolate Yorkshire moors of England.
The role of Mary is double cast, so it depends on which performance you attend as to whether you will see Kopec or Cummings. Kopec played opening night and, if Cummings is as good, the role is secure in both hands. Mary’s character is central in “The Secret Garden” and Kopec not only sang with clarity and relaxed assurance, she offered a solid characterization of the young girl who comes out of her shell to reenergize the garden and the humans around it..
Sean Bell’s program bio lists a number of previous roles in school and with another community group. This is his first for SBCT and is impressive on all counts, vocally and dramaticaly. The direct opposite of bed-ridden Colin is Dickon, a fey young man who talks to animals and communes with nature. Long-limbed Allison handles seasons and spirits with ease and, wirh sister Martha, provides the bright and positive images that signal the coming of better days.
Mary’s parents, played by Quirk and Chris Hardy, step in and out of the ghostly ensemble to play earlier life scenes that bring the storyline to the present. Both are excellent examples of the high level of singers who make up the ensemble.
The major roles of Archibald and Neville Craven require solid actors and, even more importantly, solid singers. Ball and Gray take their assignments in stride. They have, I admit, my favorite number which comes, oddly enough, not as the finale of an act but several songs from the end of Act One. It allows both brothers to reveal the depth of their love for Lily and admit that young Mary has “Lily’s Eyes.” As sung by Ball and Gray, it is the showstopper of the evening, no matter its placement in the score.
Music director Bronkema, who is in the ensemble, has done an excellent job of making sure the solo voices blend together for the lyrical chorus work. All the “spirits” are in white throughout and properly in the period.
Set designer Jeff Barrack has used the height of the Wilson stage to good advantage, with a set of tall stairs which are frequently moved (by cast members) to designate a variety of locales. The movement is done quietly and is obviously rehearsed so as not to distract from the on-stage action. The only time it does is during Archibald and Lily’s final duet. It also is not clear that the frames at the top of the stairway are for portraits of the ancestors.
The one area where musicals continue to struggle in the Wilson is in the lighting. The soft focus spots on the stage floor don’t help us see the singers faces and seeing is about as important as hearing. The use of an instrumental track adds the lush sound of a full orchestra to Simon’s score and all — at least all the principals — are miked. The last posed a bit of a problem on opening night as one of the mikes kept popping. Very disconcerting and mood-breaking
One other opening night irritant was the temperature in the auditorium which could only be described as very cold! Along with a majority of the audience, I viewed the entire performance wearing my coat.
The final stumbling block in any production of “The Secret Garden” is the garden itself. It is the focus of Mary and Dickson’s regenerative efforts and, finally, helps Colin back to good health. Having never seen a garden “reveal” that lived up to all the hype, I can only say that the SBCT attempt was definitely different .
I strongly advise you to see for yourself. Everything that leads up to it makes it worthwhile!
‘THE SECRET GARDEN” plays through Oct. 28 in the Wilson Auditorium, 403 North Main St. South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (54) 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.