The Secret Garden opened at the St. James Theatre on Broadway on April 25, 1991, and a long-awaited revival is in hopes of opening in the next year. But before then, a few local productions are trying their hand at the much-beloved musical, including a production currently being performed by North Carolina State University's University Theatre.
Adapted from the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden is the tale of Mary Lennox, a young, orphaned girl from India whose parents were British. After her parents are killed by an influx of cholera, she is sent to live with her reclusive uncle on the moors of Yorkshire, England. It is not a good fit. But the things she does, what she is able to accomplish, and the friends she makes not only make up the crux of the play, they may very likely make you cry, as well.
University Theatre has taken on this massive and vocally-challenging musical with a cast numbering 30, most of whom play ghosts (well, spirits, anyway – but Mary calls them ghosts). The ghosts guide this play to its ultimate conclusion. If you glance at the program, you will see they are referred to as "dreamers."
Mary Lennox is played here by Charleigh Smith. Smith is a college student, which is no big surprise, but I wondered beforehand whether I was going to be able to suspend my disbelief regarding her age. I should not have worried. Smith made the role her own, flying about the stage, yelling and screaming like children do (and elders don't like), but adding a beautiful voice that not only reflected youth, but also handled her music beautifully. This youthful exuberance was also noticed in Ryan Vasconcellos' portrayal of Colin, Mary's cousin and son to her often-missing uncle.
The uncle himself, Archibald Craven (Areon Mobasher), is a morose poor devil because, despite the fact that he is what his neighbors call a "hunchback," he was able to gain the love of one of the area's most beautiful women, Lily (Molly Riddick), only to lose her in childbirth ten years ago. Archie's younger brother, Dr. Neville Craven (Justin Heald), lives in the vast, three-storied, gabled house along with Archie, and cares for the bedridden Colin. Neville has told Archie that Colin is very ill (not true) and may die despite Neville's attentions. But we come to learn that Neville is the villain in this work, and he is keeping Archie from his son in order to punish him for gaining the house and lands that Neville believes should be his.
University Theatre recreates The Secret Garden on the huge Stewart Theatre stage in the Talley Student Union. The more intimate stages inside Thompson Hall would never have done. The scenic design by Jayme Mellema is one of the most striking I have seen for this play. Using an empty stage and rolling set pieces, the entire pit of the theater is back-dropped by a most revealing structure. In a flat that stands at least ten feet tall, Mary's profile silhouette is cut out center stage, and, on either side, the edges make up the labyrinth that leads to Lily's walled garden, which is carefully and stalwartly guarded by the groundskeeper, Ben (Parker Gagnier). No one has set foot inside the garden since Lily died.
Things happen along several different story lines at once. The entirety is watched over and guided by the spirits that have assembled at this house, a host of which came with Mary, but Lily's ghost as well. Archie tells Mary that "they are only ghosts if someone alive is holding onto them." Mary, of course, is holding onto all the people who cared for her in India, which included a vast array of military couples along with the native Indian servants, most importantly Mary's "Ayah" (Sanjum 'Sun' Gupta), or nanny.
The Secret Garden is not often produced in the local area, because it is a bear of a script and requires some absolutely stellar voices to pull it off. Having the entire student body at his disposal – well, more or less – director John C. McIlwee has cast this show with some of the most talented and vocally secure people on campus. The voices were exceptional, from the solos, to the duets, to the many choral strains that are peppered along the script by the "dreamers." Kudos to musical director Matt Hodge, who also leads the nine-piece student orchestra and make it sound immensely bigger!
Joshua Reaves' complex lighting system lights many different scenes onstage at once, making the action dynamic and pulse-pounding. From the minute the spirits take the stage in Scene I, the action is non-stop, and we wonder who is going to win out, Mary or Dr. Neville.
The musical highlights are many, and they are a beast to produce and to sing. But they are all the more beautiful for it. Mary's "nanny" is actually the house's maid, Martha (Fara Marin), who makes the beds, empties the chamber pots (ugh!), and generally makes Mary's life fun. She is a free-spirited Yorkshire young woman whose brother, Dickon (Charles Robson), is a "conjurer" of sorts, but who is actually just a savvy Yorkshire youth. These two people aid Mary in her quest, which is to make Colin well, says Dickon, by a magic charm that springs right up out of the ground!
Highlights in Act I include the magnificent duet between Archie and Neville, "Lily's Eyes," which they both see in Mary. This counterpoint duet is sensational, and the climax of Act I. But there are other good points, as well. Martha introduces herself to Mary with the song, "A Fine White Horse," and her brother does the same with his own song, "Spring." There is music throughout the show, and all the dreamers are singing constantly. Lily's ghost sings about her love of this man who would "Come to My Garden," and there is a beautiful duet in the ballroom where Archie and Lily dance the night away.
Act II is a much shorter one, but it is also filled with music. Archibald sings a lovely solo to Colin as he sleeps, "Race You to the Top Of The Morning," which is a tremendous lullaby from a father to his son. Dickon and Martha are working their own kind of magic on Colin in the garden, getting him up and out and exercising so he can get healthy ("Wick," Dickon). Meanwhile, because Archie has run away to Paris, Neville is trying to get a school to take Mary off his hands. He is not succeeding ("Disappear," Neville). And Lily has, of course, followed Archie to Paris, where they make a connection of sorts (Duet: "Where in the World"), and she convinces him to return home. Then comes the rousing finale sung by all the spirits as Neville and Archie and Mary and Colin sort themselves out. Having finally reunited her husband with his son, Lily bids a fond farewell, and we know that the house on the hill will be haunted no more.
University Theatre has created a performance that is so complete it is hard to find the words. If you are a soft-hearted soul, you will cry. Beautiful music, exceptional voices, fine acting and an ensemble that is always always ON, make this a performance you will not want to miss. A+!
The Secret Garden continues through Sunday, February 19. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.