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The Secret Garden, the 1991 Broadway musical written by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon and based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel of the same name, is no stranger to stages in the area. However, Theatre Raleigh's production is so emotionally arresting, so visually dazzling, that it easily stands out. A talented cast, clever staging, and brilliant pacing make this show a great one.
Led by director Tim Seib and music director Joanna Li, the cast was divided into two groups: characters of the present, clothed (for the most part) in drab, dark early 20th-century pieces; and characters from the past, wearing all white and flowing in and out of the action. This latter ensemble was multifaceted, sometimes narrating the action in a "greek chorus" style, or, at other times, providing flashbacks within present-day dialogue. Through transitions, the ghostly ensemble sang snippets while seamlessly moving the set. Other times, with adroit staging, these characters functioned as stationary set pieces, as if to portray the ghosts that never quite left Misselthwaite Manor. LeGrande Smith's expert and beautiful costuming was perhaps the main factor in keeping these two groups of intertwining characters from being confused.
Sixth-grader Skyla Woodard is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Her nuanced voice implies musical talent beyond her years, and her portrayal of the orphaned Mary Lennox's journey from being a sullen, stubborn outsider to embracing the moors and gardens around the manor of her uncle (and new guardian), Archibald, was effortless and genuine. The powerful melody of the first act song, "I Heard Someone Crying," particularly showed Woodard's vocal nuance. The journey of Mary's sickly, cloistered cousin Colin, played by seventh-grader Keegan Story, was also well done. From their first meeting, the chidlren's eagerness as well as their innocently matter-of-fact musings about death (i.e. Colin's repeated exclamations of "I'm going to die soon.") played well on stage. Colin's song with his mother, Lily, "Come to My Garden," was heartbreaking, but somehow uplifting, too. Despite being such young actors, their emotional delivery and comedic timing was well on par with their older cast members. Nick Petrelli's Dickon, who takes Mary and her secret garden under his wing, was energetically over the top, yet still sincere. This same sincerity was true of Martha (Mallory Hawks), Mary's maid, and her endearing Yorkshire accent – especially notable was her performance of the second-act ballad "Hold On." Bonnie Webster as Mrs. Medlock and David Bartlett as Ben round out the endearing manor staff. Michael Halling's gruff but increasingly vulnerable portrayal of Archibald meshed well with Mary's curiosity and the eventual duplicity of his brother, Neville (DJ Canaday).
The ghostly ensemble includes Jacob Barton, Lisette Glodowski, Austenne Grey, Carly Prentis Jones, Taylor Kraft, Jenny Latimer, Sean McCracken, Tristan Parks, and Derek Robinson. Austenne Grey's Rose and Jenny Latimer's Lily were beautiful and graceful together; the soaring, clear notes with which Lily said farewell to Archibald in the Finale were heartwrenching.
The superb technical design of the show was like another character unto itself. Sherry Lee Allen's excellent choreography seamlessly melded Indian style and movement with the Victorian setting. Christina Munich's lighting was simply fantastic, making the set pieces chameleon-like in function, no doubt planned with scenic designer Michael McClain, whose flowing, versatile pieces were framed with a gorgeous painted border along the sides and top of the stage.
While this production's run has ended, Theatre Raleigh's season continues next with Rock of Ages at Cary's Booth Amphitheatre. As The Secret Garden demonstrates, Theatre Raleigh's productions are fantastic.