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Chicago by John Olson

The Secret Garden
Porchlight Music Theatre

Also see John's review of Cradle of Man

Secret Garden
Mallory Baysek, Michael Lindner and Drew Mikuska
The ambitious Porchlight Music Theatre took a step in its evolution last season when it signed an Equity development contract, enabling them to hire one Equity performer per show, with a goal of expanding the number of Equity performers over the years. After seeing their current production of The Secret Garden, one might wonder if it was necessary to sign that contract at all. Of course, without it they wouldn't have been able to hire Michael Aaron Lindner, who won a Jeff Award last year as their Sweeney Todd and is a knockout as their Archibald here. The entire cast, though, delivers performances of such power and professionalism that you'd never know who was and who was not Equity without the little asterisk next to Lindner's name in the program. Director Walter Stearns and Music Director Eugene Dizon have assembled possibly the best all-around cast in the company's history.

It's a treat to see Mr. Lindner again and especially to hear him sing a role that, while not as dramatically juicy as Sweeney, seems a more comfortable fit for his vocal range. He delivers a touching, effectively understated performance as the lonely widower uncle and pulls us into the story by making us care about him and his grief over the loss of his wife in childbirth ten years earlier. His presence is easily matched by his castmates, beginning with his leading little lady Mallory Baysek as Mary Lennox. She's feisty, snotty, strong, energetic and loving ... everything a 13-year should be. Yet, as much of powerhouse as she is vocally and dramatically, nothing in her performance feels forced or artificial in that child actor sort of way.

Speaking of child actors, I chuckled when I read in the program that young Drew Mikuska, who plays Archibald's 10-year crippled son Colin, began his stage career playing Big Jule in Guys and Dolls. After seeing Drew in action, I stopped chuckling. He's a big talent who can command the audience's attention. In the key supporting roles of Martha and Dickon, Angela Ingersoll and Luke Mills are the funny and charming (respectively) chambermaid and her brother. Their vocal performances are some of the best moments of the show. As the ghost of Archibald's wife Lily, Lindner's wife Bethany Dawn Linder is elegant and in great voice, especially on the ballad “How Could I Ever Know?.” Jim Sherman makes a sympathetic and grandfatherly gardener. Nicholas Foster has a nice change of pace from his usual romantic and juvenile lead roles as Archibald's creepy brother Dr. Neville Craven, and as always, he's in terrific voice.

The Secret Garden's score by Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman is a favorite of many and it's given a sensational performance here. In addition to the powerful vocals, Music Dizon's five-piece orchestra sounds especially rich. Much credit is due to the contributions of Vanessa Jayne and Derek Weihofen, the two woodwind players covering eight instruments. The only regret is that sound of the orchestra and vocals as amplified in one of the Theatre Building's black boxes seems to rob the performances of some of their texture.

The sound system doesn't seem to help with the clarity of the dialogue, either. Much attention has been given to the authenticity of the North Yorkshire accents (Naomi Landman was dialect director), but the dialogue is frequently hard to understand. This may be due to acoustical limitations of the venue, but Porchlight doesn't credit a sound designer and perhaps they should hire one in the future to work on these challenges. Also, the tiny stage doesn't give Stearns much depth to work with and visually the staging can feel a little two-dimensional as a result.

We love the intimacy a small space can give to a musical, especially to a chamber piece like this one. However, the production values here, including the gorgeous costumes of L. Nicholas Saubers and the effective unit set by Richard and Jaqueline Penrod, together with the powerful performances made this production feel a little too big for the space, in a good way. This cast and crew could have delivered this material in a bigger space without any loss of connection with the audience. Maybe the next step for Porchlight ought to be to experiment with some larger venues, at least for pieces that may require more space. As Norma Desmond's from Sunset Boulevard, might have said, Porchlight is big. It's just their performing space that's small.

The Secret Garden runs through May 28th at the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:45 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. will begin May 6th. To reserve tickets with a major credit card, call The Theatre Building Chicago Box Office at 773-327-5252 or visit www.porchlighttheatre.com.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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