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St. Mark’s Players The Secret Garden

By • May 7th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
The Secret Garden
St. Mark’s Players
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC
Through May 19th
2:50 with one intermission
$20/$18 Seniors and Students/$15 Children
Reviewed May 4th, 2012

Expanding on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s famous children’s story, the 1991 musical version of The Secret Garden (book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon) gives equal attention to the adults who frame the experience of the child protagonist, Mary Lennox, the survivor of a cholera epidemic in India that killed her parents. In the process, Simon wrote for the adult characters some of the best duet and ensemble music of the last few decades on Broadway. Happily, the St. Mark’s Players (SMP) cast does full justice to Simon’s score, in a thoroughly satisfying production.

Two very different women’s voices stand out. As Lily, the ghost of Mary’s long-dead aunt, Catherine Callahan has just the sort of pure, high, lyric soprano voice the role calls for. In numbers like “A Girl in the Valley,” “Come to My Garden,” and, above all, the touching “How Could I Ever Know,” Callahan sounds downright lovely. Lily is almost entirely a singing role, with minimal acting demands, but Callahan’s sweet, still presence did what it could for a character who is, after all, more a memory than a fully fleshed-out person.

By contrast Martha, Mary’s servant and mentor, is a juicy acting role, and Julie Galorrenzo struck just the right combination of wisdom, humor, and assertiveness. She also hit the ball out of the park in her two belt numbers, “A Fine White Horse” and “Hold On.” Like her brother Dickon, played by Alex Stone, she carried off a credible Yorkshire accent. (Overall, accents in the production suffered from a degree of inconsistency.) Dickon, a young man almost unnaturally in tune with nature (he not only talks to birds, they also seem to answer him), plays a key role in Mary’s growth into the radiant girl she becomes. Stone has quick arms and hands, gesturing rapidly, but appropriately, on virtually every line of “Winter’s on the Wing” and “Come Spirit, Come Charm.” He also displayed a strong, belt-like tenor voice.

The lead male role of Archibald Craven, Mary’s uncle and guardian, was written for Mandy Patinkin, creating a vocal challenge for any performer who lacks Patinkin’s highly unusual voice and penchant for overwrought emotion. Patrick McMahan navigated the vocal shoals nicely, doing an outstanding job of making “Race You to the Top of the Morning,” a believable story told to a child. He often approached the material in a low-key, reflective way, except in Patinkin-shaped sections of three numbers where having to be overwrought is nearly unavoidable.

Marsha Norman knows depression (her Night, Mother is possibly the most depressing play I have ever seen), and she wrote Archibald as a character unable to shake a 10-year depression following his wife Lily’s death. At times, McMahan’s Archibald was a shade too robust, physically and emotionally, to fully realize Norman’s concept. (Curiously, he also lacked the hump on his back to which the script frequently refers.) As his resentful younger brother, Neville, Christopher Tully did his best work in a second act dialogue scene in which he attempts to ship Mary off to boarding school. In some productions, Neville can seem a purposeful villain. Here, Tully provided a less embittered, softer interpretation (for example, he just threatens to slap, rather than actually slapping, Mary in that dialogue scene), longing to escape his brother’s shadow. McMahan responds with a gentler reading of the final Archibald-Neville scene at the end of the show, when his suggestion that Neville leave the estate is less a forced exile than a generous offer of a new start in life. Perhaps because of the less sharply conflicted tone of the relationship between the brothers, the stakes are lower in their powerful duet, “Lily’s Eyes,” which consequently lacked the show-stopping impact it is capable of delivering.

Emma Kelly effectively traced Mary’s broad character arc from hurt, angry, closed-off orphan to inquisitive explorer of a new world to warm and vibrant emotional rescuer of both Archibald and his son, Colin (Merritt Schwartz). Kelly sang clearly and delineated well her character’s changing attitude toward life and the people around her. She also had fun throwing a knowingly melodramatic temper tantrum to drive away a boarding school representative. Particularly in the second act, her rapid delivery sometimes made her lines difficult to understand. Schwartz gets Colin’s anger at being penned up all his life, though the effect of his singing, especially in “Round-Shouldered Man,” was impaired by too-low sound system levels that made him difficult to hear above the orchestra.

The orchestra was a star of the show in its own right, playing almost error-free and with fine musicality. At a time when small, mostly electronic, bands are used in many shows, it is a treat to hear the difference a larger, mostly acoustic, orchestra makes in enriching the aural experience of a musical.

Secret Garden is an excellent ensemble show. The entire SMP ensemble does strong work throughout, especially in the storm sequences. Each member of the ensemble has opportunities for solo and duet lines, and the quality of their performance is consistently good. Some of the small group pieces — “I Heard Someone Crying,” “Quartet,” and the reprise to “A Bit of Earth”– are among the musical high points of the evening.

Lily and most of the ensemble characters are ghosts, the memories that Archibald and Mary carry of their dead dear ones. That being the case, I question Director Eddie Schwartz’s choice to have frequent physical contact between ghosts and the living (such as Lily climbing into Colin’s bed to hold him or Lily and Archibald holding hands and embracing during “How Could I Ever Know”). We can hold our ghosts in our hearts, but holding them in our arms is a good deal more problematic.

SMP’s playing space is very intimate, not providing room for much in the way of sets. In Secret Garden, the designers deal with this problem by placing a scrim upstage, onto which images (e.g., the interior and exterior of Archibald’s mansion, the garden) are projected, and behind which the ghosts have a number of short scenes. Save for one very unfortunately timed computer glitch, this approach worked well. By using only a few stage dressing items — a desk in some scenes, a bed in others, two and multi-purpose black crates — Schwartz kept plenty of open space for his cast to maneuver within the limited area available.

The varied costumes — military dress whites, workaday outfits, elegant dresses, traditional Indian garb, and business suits, among others — were colorful and interesting.

While St. Mark’s does not have the wealth of lighting instruments available to some groups, the lighting scheme was generally effective. There was a jarring switch to a too-bright look for Mary’s first, nocturnal visit to Colin’s room, and a series of cuing issues beset the emotional climax of the show, the “Where in the World/How Could I Ever Know” sequence. A show the focus of which is on horticulture, not astronomy, would have done better without the distracting “starlight” effect through the scrim in the second act. There was an amusing prop moment in Mary’s “Letter Song,” as she wrote Archibald with what must have been a 1911-model ballpoint pen.

Burnett, who wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy as well as The Secret Garden, seemed very comfortable in an England of soulful, troubled members of the upper class and compliant lower-class folk happy to serve them and content in their place. She wrote The Secret Garden just a year before George Bernard Shaw skewered the British class system in Pygmalion and just three years before the cozy Edwardian world she knew was overturned by the cataclysm of World War I. In the century between the book and this production of the musical, that historical context itself has become something of a ghost, leaving behind only the emotional tenderness of children and adults trying to find love and security in the face of wrenching loss.

Director’s Notes

Welcome to the St. Mark’s Players production of The Secret Garden. It is a pleasure for us to present this show to you, and we hope it warms your heart as it has ours during our rehearsals. I would like to tell you a little bit about the opening scenes of the show, and what The Secret Garden means for all of us.

The Opening — Mary’s Dream

The show begins with a bad dream that Mary Lennox has one night in India. During Mary’s dream, her parents, Capt. Albert Lennox and Rose, are entertaining guests. As the abstract dream continues, each of the guests becomes sick and dies of cholera — a red handkerchief represents their deaths. When Mary awakens from her nightmare, she finds that the dream is reality, and there is no one left that she knew in India. Mary is sent off to live wither her Uncle Archibald in Yorkshire. The “dreamers,” who are Mary’s ghosts from her past life in India, reappear throughout the show.

Archibald and Colin

Archibald was married to Rose’s sister Lily, but has not know happiness since Lily’s death, over 10 years earlier. Just as Mary is haunted by images of the death she experienced in India, Archie is tormented by his profound memories of Lily. Archibald is also estranged from his son Colin, who has been sick from birth. Mary, Archie, and Colin are trapped in a dark world, devoid of love and hope.

Over the course of the show, The Secret Garden demonstrates to us how the power of love brings forth the warmth and growth of Spring into our hearts, heals wounds, gives us hope, and lets our world be reborn. I hope our show does the same for you.

Eddie Schwartz
May 4, 2012

Cast

  • Lily: Catherine Callahan
  • Mary Lennox: Emma Kelly
  • Fakir: Ebenezer Concepcion
  • Ayah: Alexis Truitt
  • Capt. Albert Lennox: Christian Huebner
  • Rose: Heather Cipu
  • Major Shelly/Lt. Shaw: Patrick Farley
  • Mrs. Shelly/Jane/Nurse: Joy Gardiner
  • Major Holmes: Heath Dillard
  • Alice: Amy Baska
  • Lt. Wright: Elijah Lawrence
  • Claire: Rachel Watson
  • Betsy/Mrs. Winthrop: Mary Alaya-Bush
  • Archibald Craven: Patrick McMahan
  • Dr. Neville Craven: Christopher Tully
  • Mrs. Medlock: Chrish Kresge
  • Martha: Julie Galorenzo
  • Dickon: Alex Stone
  • Ben: John Allniut
  • Colin: Merritt Schwartz
  • Dreamers: Nate Crystal, Natalie Davidson, Madeline Heyman, Lily Pond, Miranda Ryan

Production Staff

  • Director: Eddie Schwartz
  • Music Directors: J.N. Wickert III, Amy Conley
  • Stage Manager: David Jung
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Mary Macfarlane
  • Producers: Chrish Kresge, Eliza Kashinsky
  • Choreographer: Kay Casstevens
  • Accent Coach: Clare Palace
  • Costume Design: Ceci Albert, Lisa Brownsword
  • Sound Design: Benjamin allen
  • Sound Engineer: Josh Canary
  • Lighting Design: Eddie Schwartz
  • Master Electrician: Jerry Dale
  • Lighting Technicians: Roger Munter, Rick Hayes, Oscar Alvarez
  • Properties Design: Charmice Hardy
  • Set Design: Charmice Hardy
  • Set Construction and Painting: Charmice Hardy, Josh Kashinsky, Robert Ryan, Eddie Schwartz, David Jung, Eliza Kashinsky
  • Audition Pianist: Jeff Kempskie
  • Rehearsal Pianists: Amy Conley, Jeff Kempskie, Matt Jeffries, Mark Vogel
  • Makeup Consultant: Rick Hayes
  • Box Office Manager: Genie Lomize
  • House Manager: Josh Kashinsky
  • Assistant House Manager: Fairfield Butt
  • Cover Art: Jennifer Reitz

Disclaimer: St. Mark’s Players provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review. Also note that the reviewer appeared in an earlier show this season at the St. Mark’s Players, which did not impact this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

One Response »

  1. I fixed a few misspellings of actors’ names. I apologize for our mistakes.