Reviewed by Carolyn M. Gillespie
I love The Secret Garden. Maybe it’s just the gardener in me, but I don’t think so. The musical treatment of the cherished 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett has book and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman (‘night Mother), and music by Lucy Simon. It opened on Broadway in 1991 and rightly won a slew of Tony Awards – and now it’s playing at the Fenton Village Playhouse on Torrey Road through August 18th.
Frank Pitts III serves as musical director and makes his stage directing debut with this challenging piece. He has assembled a credible cast of singers who work with pre-recorded orchestrations to bring the lush score to life. The India sequence that opens the show features the chorus of spirits and showcases some of the production’s finest voices.
Leading the company in the roles of Mary Lennox and Colin Craven are two real-life siblings – Maggie and Colin (yes!) Hodgkin. Both of them win our sympathy as they deal with the raw hands that life has dealt them. A third sibling, Skye, joins the chorus of Dreamers. Darrell Wright plays Archibald Craven, Colin’s grief-stricken, widowed father to whom Mary is sent after her own parents fall victim to a cholera epidemic in colonial India. Wright brings a kind of raw vulnerability to the role. His agony is palpable in the Act II Paris numbers. The cast also includes his real-life wife as Mary’s Indian Ayah, and his son Jimmy as another Dreamer. Chris and Jody Vitarelli play the spirits of Mary’s deceased father, and Archibald’s deceased wife respectively and give great depth to these characters with their beautiful vocals and confident performances. It’s a real family affair!
Keith Terkeurst plays Dr.Neville Craven, Archibald’s brother and the play’s ostensible villain. The rivalry between the two men is highlighted in their stirring duet Lily’s Eyes in Act I. M. A.Vukelich and Shelby Coleman play the positive forces in Mary’s new life as Dickon, a perceptive young gardener (whose Yorkshire dialect is spot-on), and Martha, the delightful chambermaid. The two of them have some of the most beautiful and rousing numbers in the show. Jesse Soelberg rounds out the trio of helpers as Ben Weatherstaff, the faithful old gardener who does the grunt work in reviving Lily’s abandoned garden.
The scenic design by Jordan Climie is dominated by a large garden wall. Side stages attempt to address the play’s multiple location changes, but create some awkwardness in FVP’s limited space, and the flow of the play is disrupted by scene shifts in silent blackouts, despite the valiant efforts of the crew. Furnishings and details are a bit of a hodge-podge. Costumes by Karen Craner (who also appears as the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock) give a sense of period style to the production on a limited budget, and Gino Minchella manages to create a consistent separation between the real world and the spirit world with FVP’s bare-bones lighting equipment. Directorial story-telling is sometimes confusing, particularly at the beginning, and the conflicts and stakes are somewhat muted, but the tale carries us along anyway, even if we sometimes have to play catch-up.
I was sitting behind a couple of children during Saturday night’s performance. One little girl had the novel in her hand and was hungrily reading it during intermission. I loved that. So, make a date and take your kids or grandkids to visit The Secret Garden. Or just go by yourself to witness this magical and moving tale of rebirth – and maybe follow up with a visit to a real garden blooming somewhere in your neighborhood.