The Secret Garden, book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon. Choreographed and Directed by Karla Shook.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...the child of our love..."
Christopher Violett as Dickon; photo provided
Melodramatic emotions abound in the musical "The Secret Garden." Young Colin Craven hates everyone and everything, especially himself, because a genetic disorder will result in his early death. Young Mary Lennox, orphaned by a Cholera epidemic in India, is lost in a world she cannot connect with emotionally. Archibald Craven has shut his emotions away after the death of his wife in childbirth and will only visit his ailing child when the boy is fast asleep and he cannot look at his ward, Mary, because she reminds him of his late wife. Neville Craven believes that nothing can be done for anyone without ordering them about and making them miserable as he is miserable about losing the woman he loved to his brother. And then thereís the housekeeper at Misselthwaite Manor who believes that orders are meant to carried out without question and without pause.
That is what confronts you at the Mac-Haydn Theatre for the moment and though there is a lot of music in this show, donít expect to come out singing the hits. There are no hits.
However there are some topnotch performances, hits of a different kind to be sure. First on the list is Christopher Violett who plays the role of Dickon, usually cast as a teenager, but here a young man of twenty-three perhaps. He appears late in Act One and takes over the show with two songs "Winterís On The Wing" in that act and "Wick" in Act Two. He is dynamic and strong with a beautiful voice and an aptitude for character acting. Bravo!
As Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper (has there ever been a housekeeper whose first name is Miss?) is the absolutely perfect, if wasted, Monica M. Wemett, a company stalwart who will hopefully be used to the full extent of her talents later in the season. In this role she is cold and forbidding and very much in charge of things. She does this all very well indeed. But seeing her on stage makes you want more from her, and the role denies her that opportunity.
Martha, Dickonís sister, is played to perfection by Colleen Gallagher and Colinís mother Lily is sung beautifully by Caitlin Fischer.
The Craven brothers are played by Kenneth Ruth (Archibald) and Ben Jacoby (Neville). These men are marvelous in their roles, and best when they duet on "Lilyís Eyes" and sing about the sisters Lily and Rose in the second act Quartet.
The girl playing Mary Lennox is always at the center of the show and as good as Daisy Eagan was in the 1991 Broadway production it was never enough to make me understand a two year run of this show. In the current production Lily Page took center stage and made the most possible of the role. She has a genuine talent, this young girl, and hopefully we will have the opportunity to watch her grow into a fine performer. For right now she does beautifully in the part and gets to play it on June 26, 27 in the evenings and July 3, and 4 matinees.
The supporting players and the chorus do a fine job most of the time in this show. Except as described a paragraph or so below.
Lighting Designer Andrew Gmoser has added set designing for this production and he has done well. Dale DiBernardo has provided classic costumes and John D. Smith does well by the score considering the limitations imposed on the orchestra at this theater.
What is hard to understand is how the director, Karla Shook, whose career was developed on this stage over a healthily lengthy period of years, could have learned so little about staging a show for theater-in-the-round. Admittedly this is the hardest form to work in, but she has years of experience as a featured and star player. I cannot begin to tell you the number of times Mary Lennox - whose story we are watching - was surrounded by massively tall and bulkily dressed choristers, only to remain completely hidden from the audience.
I can recount the sloppiness of the direction in terms of watching masses of people parade constantly in and out of scenes that only called for a sense of presence. There is no way to describe the amateurish mess of the visuals she prepared for this show. Her sister Kelly Shook has advanced to a nice niche here directing and choreographing. While not brilliant she has a much better command of the form than does Ms. Karla. Karla should stick to what she does best, the character woman leading roles from the Ethel Merman school of musical comedy, and leave the direction to people who can see what works and know what doesnít and have the good taste to act on those instincts. Perhaps a musical like "Park" with only three characters is where this director should have started her directing career. At least with something like that she wouldnít have been able to upstage her leading lady, something I commented on in this companyís production of "A Chorus Line" in a previous season.
This will never be my favorite musical and this production leaves me as cold about it as ever. Some wonderful performances, however, make it a watchable show and the sweetness of the story will win over many people, I am sure. At least this isnít the companyís three week run choice. That is still to come.
Lily Page as Mary Lennox; photo provided
Ben Jacoby as Neville; photo provided
The Secret Garden plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, located on Route 203 just north of Chatham, New York, through July 4. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-9292.