Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Aesthetically exquisite THE SECRET GARDEN at GLT

Every once in a while a theater-goer is privileged to participate in a staged production that aesthetically enfolds them. Under the creative direction of Victoria Bussert, Great Lakes Theater’s THE SECRET GARDEN, is such a creation.

The musical THE SECRET GARDEN is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel of the same name.  It was transformed into a play by Marsha Norman, with music by Lucy Simon.  The Broadway show, which opened in 1991 to positive reviews, ran over 700 performances.

The story takes place in 1906 and centers on Mary Lennox, who is left an orphan in India, when her parents die in a cholera outbreak.  She is sent to live with her only living relative, Archibald Craven.  A hunchbacked widower, who is in deep mourning, he lives in a secluded manor on the British heath.  The house is haunted by bitterness and ghosts of loss.  Archibald’s wife, Lily, died in childbirth.  Her son, Colin, is sickly, resented, and ignored by his father.   Mary enters into the residence with her own “ghosts,” her deceased parents and the “Indian dreamers.” 

After rejection by her uncle, and isolation and loneliness, Mary is befriended by Martha, a chambermaid and, as she wanders the grounds she makes the acquaintance of Dickon, a young gardener.  He shares with her that Lily’s once beautiful garden has been allowed to fall in disrepair. 

Against her uncle’s orders, Mary enters into her guilt-ridden cousin Colin’s room and helps him to overcome his hypochondria.  Of course, in the end, as the garden blooms, Archibald finds peace, Colin becomes well, Mary finds a place to call home, and we learn of “the power that one small girl can have when she wants things to grow.”

Simon’s musical score is glorious.  It contains beautiful songs with Indian and classical intonations.  The haunting “Come to My Garden” wanders in and out of the entire score.  Other highlight songs are Mary and Dickon’s duet, “Show Me the Key,” “Lily’s Eyes,” sung by Neville and Archibald, and the gorgeously presented “Where in the World” (Archibald) and “How Could I Ever Know” (Lily and Archibald).  

Unfortunately, at the Sunday matinee I saw, the sound level of the orchestra was set so high that most of the lyrics in the first act were drowned out.  Fortunately, the problem was corrected in the second act, and the words and music formed a wonderful collage of meaning and effect.

As attested to by the vast number of tween and pre-tween girls in the audience, the book has a vast number of readers, cherubs who not only have read the book, but know it well.  

At intermission, many of the girls were enthusiastically commenting on the similarities and differences between the book and the script.   Most comments centered on the additional emphasis on the adult characters.  One little smarty commented that in the book, Archibald’s wife was named Lilias, and that she was the sister of Mary Lennox’s father, but in the musical, Colin’s and Mary’s mothers are sisters named Rose and Lily.  Another told me that she thought Dr. Neville Craven was an evil man who intentionally made Colin sick so that Neville could inherit the estate.  Others stated that they wanted to play the role of Mary.  Ah, the imagination and dreams of the young.

Bussert’s creativity is stamped all over the production.  The story is clearly developed, the pacing holds the audience’s attention, the pathos is nicely honed, and the over-all effect is aesthetically exquisite.   She is aided by excellent choreography by Gregory Daniels.  His concept for “Come Spirit, Come Charm” is magical.  Charlotte Yetman’s costume designs, Paul Miller’s lighting, and Jeff Herrmann’s scenic design all help enhance the visual aspects.

It takes a major leap of faith to produce THE SECRET GARDEN, as the major character is a tween.  To find a local girl who can proficiently sing, act, memorize all the lines, and produce a natural and consistent  British accent is a major undertaking.  Fortunately, the talented Sheffield Middle School’s Giovanna Layne came forth.   She is nothing short of wonderful.  She is matched by the equally talented Warren Bodily, a Boise, Idaho import.  He well portrayed and sang the role of Colin.

Stephen Mitchell Brown, who was recognized by the Cleveland Critics Circle, Times Tributes, and Broadwayworld.com as the Best Actor in a Musical, for his GLT performance as Jean Valjean in LES MISÉRABLES, again commands the stage as Archibald Craven.  His voice is glorious and his performance totally convincing.  This is another bravo performance.

Jillian Kates enchants as Lily.  Her vocalizations are exquisite.  BW rising junior, Colton Ryan, is excellent as Dickon.  His is one of the many fine singing voices on stage and appears to be another of  “Vicky’s kids,” who is Broadway ready.

Other strong singing and acting performances are given by Sara Masterson as Martha and Tom Ford as Dr. Neville Craven. 

Capsule judgement: Victoria Bussert, her technical crew and the cast join their skills to make the Great Lakes production of THE SECRET GARDEN a very special theatrical offering.  This is a show that deserves the standing ovation that it should get after each performance.  Bravo!

THE SECRET GARDEN runs through October 31, 2015 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets and information: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org