The Justice Theater Project opened its 2011-12 season this weekend with a massive undertaking of the musical The Secret Garden, incorporating a cast of over 50 individuals and venturing into hitherto unknown territory. The JTP has not before attempted anything on such a scale and has only once previously presented a musical — Studs Terkel’s Working, which was more of a play with music than it was a musical. Deb Royals, artistic director for the Project, directs this gigantic enterprise with skill and an eye for placing important scenes artfully in a diverse setting created by Scene and Light Designer Tom Wolf.

The Secret Garden is based on the novel by the same name, with musical book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon of the talented Simon family. While the main characters number only a handful, the house that features so prominently in the play is haunted by a multitude of spirits, mostly those who die suddenly in India of a cholera epidemic. These ghosts are relatives and friends of Mary Lenox (Monica Powell), the only survivor of the tragedy. Mary is sent to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven (Zach Thomas), and his brother, Dr. Neville Craven (Edward Cooke), who tends Archie’s ten-year-old son, Colin (Vincent Roche). The people who befriend Mary in her new surroundings are denizens of the moors of Northern England, including Ben, the gardener (Bing Cox); Martha, the maid (Mary Reilly); her brother Dickon (Jeffrey Viscaino); and, to a lesser degree, Mrs. Medlock, the Housekeeper (Alison Lawrence). The entire situation is haunted, both by the above-mentioned ghosts and particularly by the ghost of Lily, Archie’s dead wife (Carly Prentis Jones), who died ten years ago in childbirth. Despite the decade in between, Archie cannot let go of the dream he lived so fleetingly in that time.

The complexity of fitting this massive drama in such a small acting space was the task facing Royals, who has never been one to eschew a challenge. By using levels and set pieces, Royals manages to create the entire house of the Cravens, a huge haunt of a place in the dreary moors.

Entrances and exits exist in and around the seated audience, and the multitude of an ensemble fills these ramps to bursting when called upon. Included in a double-score ensemble are the ghosts of Albert and Rose, Mary’s father and mother (Jesse Janowsky and Renee Wimberley); and a number of other people who figure prominently in the original text. All told, the ensemble numbers over forty. This number includes five Indian dancers, who contribute to the ambience of the show with authentic Indian dance.

While the show is wonderfully designed and timely in its costumes of the late nineteenth century, with precision on the part of all concerned, the show would be little more than a well-controlled traffic pattern unless the show was properly sung. We are happy to relay that this show is wonderfully sung, with trios, quartets, choruses, and solos all done with style and panache. A highlight of the show is the Storm scene, which features a duet between Archie and Neville (“Lily’s Hazel Eyes”); it is the turning point of Act 1 and might ruin the entire first act if done poorly. Thomas and Cooke do a fine counterpoint of first and second tenor and lay a superb groundwork for the entry of the ensemble, which brings the impending storm to life onstage.

All is not as rosy as might first be assumed, however. Because it is necessary to split the audience into a pair of facing banks, some of the dialog is lost when an actor faces one or the other bank. Every speaking role was guilty of a lack of projection at some point.

The dialog, however, is fortunately more often than not done in verse, and the singers were spot on with their vocals. To be singled out for excellent performances are two of the main characters, Mary (Powell) and Colin (Roche). Powell is ten years old and sings beautifully; Roche is eleven and is a strong character actor. To see actors so young perform in a major production is both heart-warming and stirring.

JTP’s entry into the musical is a complex and stirring production, which operates on a variety of levels and is held together masterfully by a trio of musicians (keyboards by Coty Cockrell, bass and percussion by Jason Hendrick and Andrew Munger). It is a strong and well-controlled work that speaks to a new venue for the JTP as a producer of pivotal musical productions.

This show runs through 9/25. For details, see the sidebar.