FCP Presents Music and Magic

Reviewed by Sherrema A. Bower

Flint Community Players’ (FCP) musical production of The Secret Garden, based on the beloved children’s book of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911), is set in Edwardian England, specifically the Yorkshire Moors. The magical quality of of curiosity and play, balanced by ghosts of tragedy that haunt the living, make this musical play a metaphor of life, death, and living again.

The story begins in India, where 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Emily Rodman) is the only survivor in her home during a cholera epidemic. She is sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her guardian uncle Archibald Carven (Dean Joyce), who was married to her mother’s sister Lilly (Angel Langford), after Rose (Bethany Emery) and her husband, Captain Albert Lennox (Victor Galea), are taken by cholera. Described as a ‘sour’ child, Mary is spoiled and seemingly dependent on servants to dress and care for her. However, as she takes in her new surroundings and befriends her maid, Martha (Madison Griffin), she comes to a new sense of independence. Precocious and unafraid to speak her mind, Mary Lennox is assertive and a force to be reckoned with (“The Girl I Mean to Be”).

While learning to jump rope, Mary meanders through the gardens of the manor and comes to one that is walled in mysterious seclusion. An overhanging tree is familiar from a picture she holds of her Aunt Lilly sitting in the same. She learns from gardener Ben Weatherstaff (Tony Stroh) that after a tragedy 10 years before, the garden was made off limits by her Uncle Archibald, the key hidden, and the door to the garden taken over by tangled vines. Mary finds the key, enters the garden, and Dicken (Cruz Russick), who assists the gardener, helps her make it come alive again. Meanwhile, at night inside the house, Mary hears strange crying (“I Heard Someone Crying”) and discovers her Cousin Colin (Aven Young), a sickly child, who her uncle wants little to do with since he was born the day his mother Lilly died tragically 10 years before.

The play differs from the book in that it holds a parallel story, between Mary and Archibald, of tragedy and redemption. In the book, the latter’s presence is tangentially felt and the drama unfolds largely between Mary and Colin. However, in the play, the character of Archibald is more deeply developed and played with equal parts tragedy and fervor by Joyce. He has a beautiful singing voice that brings the depth of Archibald’s pain to light, as he grapples with seeing Lilly in every mannerism Mary makes. She has “Lilly’s Eyes” and he and his brother, Dr. Neville Carven (Joshua Harney), are haunted by her memory. The relationship between the brothers is tortured and punctuated by secrets and tension. Langford has a singing voice that is beautifully clear and true and her portrayal of Lilly as a woman in love, taken from life in her prime, is tinged with sadness and hope. Archibald flees to France and his brother, who is ‘caring’ for Colin is confronted by Mary about the quality of his care. He attempts to send her away to boarding school, only to be further confronted by her force of truth.

Emily Rodman, as Mary, is easily the star of this show. Her singing voice is luminous with strength from tragedy she has experienced. She is a girl who has lost it all and is finding out who she is.  The garden scenes are a metaphor for her rebirth, as she evolves from sour and spoiled to curious, engaging, and a believer in magic. Dicken tells her that the garden is “Wick,” Yorkshire slang for ‘alive’ or ‘lively,’ and the garden eventually is under their ministrations. Soon, Mary and Colin, who she sequesters out of the house, find their well-being revived (“Come To My Garden”). Emily’s portrayal of Mary is strong and confident.

Whereas, in the book, Colin becomes well with repeated visits to the garden, in the play and especially the song “Come Spirit, Come Charm,” Mary demonstrates the influence of all she learned in India. Like Archibald, Mary carries her own ghosts, especially that of her ayah (J’hane Perdue), or nursemaid, who cared for her in India and fakir (Davonte’ Tenniswood), who brings strength of dance. In this garden scene, the Company, including her parents and their friends that perished from cholera, come and dance to help Mary cast a spell to make Colin well again. The scene is lively and magical, capturing ritual and mythos. Later, she writes a letter (“Letter Song”) to Archibald, asking him to come home again and after a deeply stirring song (“How Could I Ever Know?”) between him and Lilly, he is given the strength to finally move on and live. He returns to find that the garden that took the wife he loved has brought his son to life.

The parallels of seclusion will ring true for young attendees, who have struggled through the isolation of COVID. Having to study and amuse themselves on their own, isolated from friends and loved ones, they will find a certain resonance with Colin, Mary, and even Archibald. At the play’s beginning, upon everyone but Mary’s death, the living must cover their faces with masks and rags. When Mary discovers Colin, she learns that he has faced the loneliness of being bedridden for 10 years without companionship of other children. She, herself, makes companions of the maid Martha and gardeners. Griffin, as Martha, gives a stirring performance and makes her character real. Her vocals, especially in the song “Hold On,” are natural and strong. Perdue, as Mary’s ayah, moves with grace in dance and shows connection to the young Mary. Russick, as Dicken, brings a sense of fun and mischief. He is delightfully unconcerned with Mary or Colin’s bossiness and his full-sleeved shirt, vest, knee-length pants, and period shoes give him the air of a spritely fairy, like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Transitions of time are an important theme in this production. Parallel scenes of past and present often take place simultaneously and the stage is beautifully designed (Adam Iaquinto, Set Design) to accommodate. The garden scenes are portrayed with moving arbors and tree, the door inset and cleverly hidden, and lighting (Adam Iaquinto) appropriate to the shadowy past and bright present. The stage is laden with flowers and life takes place here. The music, with flute portraying the robin’s song, and a full orchestral recording for the 35 songs that move the story forward with full Chorus. Costumes are appropriately period. Colin’s hairstyle and clothing are especially noteworthy as the style of the time.

One possible drawback may concern the lack of diversity. Perdue and Tenniswood carry their roles well; however, they are portrayed as ‘exotic’ and were crowded out in the chorus line. Mary’s ability to reach across strict class differences and befriend gardeners and servants provides an interesting counterpoint. 

In spite of this, the portrayal of relationships, past and present, carries this production with something for everyone to see and consider in the metaphor of the garden, evolution of self, and a sense of curiosity, wonder, and magic that brings the children to wholeness.

The Secret Garden continues this weekend Saturday 1/22 at 2:30 and 7:30 pm. And Sunday at 2:30 pm. For information contact the box office 810-441-9302 or online at .flintcomunityplayers.com

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