The Secret Garden
Also see David's review of Take Me Out
Playwright/lyricist Norman and composer Simon's version of The Secret Garden is a far more challenging family entertainment than most; what with orphaned Mary Lennox, haunted by spirits of family and friends lost to cholera in India, adjusting to being transplanted to Misselthwaite Manor, the distant Yorkshire, England home of her equally haunted Uncle Archie, widower of Mary's Aunt Lily. Mary makes friends with several of the estate servants, but is a thorn in the side of her Uncle's brooding brother, Dr. Neville Craven, whose devotion to the care of Mary's sickly cousin Colin masks his darker intentions. In a forthright and spirited manner, Mary brings both her new family and her Aunt Lily's secret garden back to life, as she and Archie are finally able to move past their emotional losses.
Though The Secret Garden is by and large Mary's story, the top acting and vocal honors in this production go Dallyn Vail Bayles who makes us see past Archie's brooding exterior and taps into his broken heart with subtle nuance. Bayles also handles the vocal demands of Simon's music (written for Mandy Patinkin) with skill and dexterity, never shortchanging Norman's poetic and moving lyrics. The actor soars in his solos, "Race You to the Top of the Morning," "Where in the World," and especially "A Bit of Earth"; sensitively partners Katie E. Tomlinson's limpid and lovely Lily on "A Girl in the Valley" and "How Could I Ever Know?"; and ignites the score's stunning showpiece male duet, "Lily's Eyes," opposite Joshua M. Bott's finely wrought portrayal of Dr. Neville Craven. Rachel Beck's Mary (Catlin Kinnunen in certain performances) is plucky, uncloying and ingratiating, and is generally up to the chores of the role's relatively few vocals. Kat Ramsburg is saucy yet sympathetic as housemaid Martha, imbuing her comic solo " A Fine White Horse" with joy and delivering a knockout dramatic solo on "Hold On," while Eric Ankrim does well by the role of Martha's earthy brother Dickon, particularly in his rock-tinged solo, "Winter's on the Wing." And Tomlinson's Lily is most winning as she steps out of her portrait to sing the lovely "Come to My Garden."
Cast against type, Chad Jennings gamely tackles the role of old Ben the Gardener, but has to act too hard to convey the character's age and world weariness, and in the admittedly difficult role of young Colin, Josh Froebe is simply not up to the role's musical demands, while his struggle with a Yorkshire accent renders most of his dialogue unintelligible. Standout performances in lesser roles include Terri Lee Thomas as the formidable housekeeper Mrs. Medlock, Beth DeVries as Mary's self-focused mother Rose and Connie Corrick' s amusing cameo as Mary's prospective headmistress Mrs. Winthrop. The ensemble sounds vocally accomplished throughout, though microphone issues hampered matters a bit on opening night. Dialect work throughout the show was spotty with Ramsburg and Thomas the most consistent and natural in their efforts.
Musical director Ian Eisendrath conjures a rich, full sound from his smallish ensemble of musicians, though he might well have harped more on his cast members' diction, given the lyric-heavy nature of this show. Kathryn Van Meter's choreography is a mixed bag, notably successful in her handling of the full ensemble staging of "A Girl in the Valley," stiffly awkward elsewhere. The act two fantasy "Come Spirit, Come Charm" starts out well, but is one of those numbers that grows more tediously absurd as it goes on and on, and would benefit from some paring down.
Carey Wong's scenic design is among the most handsome and richly detailed I have seen in a Village production, though some set piece moves need to be rethought and revised (notably Archie's set piece rolling on several bars after he began "Lily's Eyes"). Alex Berry's lighting design does wonderful things throughout, especially his use of shadows in the scenes of Mary roaming through the old house. Melanie Burgess has created a sumptuous array of costumes, and her blue gown for Lily is quite a vision of loveliness, something that can be said about this production in general.
The Secret Garden runs through January 2, 2005 at The Village Theatre, 303 Front Street North, Issaquah, WA, and January 7-23, 2005 at the Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Avenue, Everett, WA. For further information go to the Village web-site at www.villagetheatre.org.