The Secret Garden
Book and Lyrics by Marsha Norman
Music by Lucy Simon
Directed by Kaitlyn Chantry
Music Directed by Jason Luciana
Lucy Gladstone, Allsun O'Malley
Stephen Piergrossi, Jr.
Alice / Mrs. Winthrop
I managed to catch the opening performance of The Secret Garden presented by The Longwood Players the other night at the Cambridge YMCA. Needless to say, I have never been a huge fan of this particular space because of the ability to actually use the space effectively. Also, the last time I was there, I didn’t recall it being the prettiest of spaces either. However, the night I came to see the show, it looks like the space was recarpeted and repainted giving it a bit more character and it became a hundred times more presentable. I was very impressed.
The musical is based on the famed novel of the same name. The story tells of a young girl named Mary who moves in with her reclusive uncle Archibald Craven in Yorkshire, England. She moves from India since being orphaned after parents were taken during cholera epidemic. She realizes she has to do her best to make do. However, she soon discovers a garden hidden away that only requires some attention to bring it back to its once-thriving self. She quickly befriends her sickly cousin and also enlists help from the various grounds keeping staff to help bring the garden alive. Along the way she learns a great deal about her new world and about herself. As the book focuses more on the children of the story, the musical focuses on the adults, including Archibald and his relationships with others, specifically having a hard time with moving on after losing his wife. The show moves back and forth between the present and past and we learn more about Archibald's state and eventual acceptance of the circumstances placed upon him. We also see Mary grow over the course of the show as well, accepting her new calling. People from the past make their way into their story, giving us a better sense of the world where this takes place.
The score for the show is beautiful. Written by Lucy Simon, it definitely has a very powerful and swelling sound. I appreciate how much of it felt right for the particular era the show fit in. Marsha Norman wrote the book and lyrics and knowing that the basis was the novel, it was obvious that certain liberties were taken, specifically adding or amplifying certain moments. Young Mary had lived in India and it was clear that there was a presence of it throughout the show and it almost felt shoehorned into the actual story itself. It felt tacked on and at times confusing almost changing important moments. Also, the writing also presents a challenge by having the dead from the past be a part of the story. This creates a major issue for costuming and staging, considering its up to audience to figure out who is dead and who is alive out of the ensemble. However, as the overall story is still there and there were some moments, specifically seeing more of Archibald's struggle, were particularly interesting to watch.
Kaitlyn Chantry's direction is unique and well executed. In this production, she knows that YMCA is a small space and does her best to use every bit of it. She creates a community-like world and has all ensemble members present on stage. When a scene comes about where the ensemble must come forth, like the soldiers from India who knew Mary's father, they slip into the scene, and then quickly out. There were some moments it felt, however, that it was sometimes distracting to have everyone on stage when certain action was going on, but not enough to create complete congestion. Various moments with Mary trying to make her way through the rest of the cast worked, as it created a sense of alarm and confusion, which heightened the emotion very well. Music Director Jason Luciana does a great job of keeping the orchestra in tandem with each other. He brings together incredibly talented musicians to create a strong sound. They are neither to quiet nor overwhelming and they bring a subtle feel to the overall score. They are just right in order to help us lose ourselves in the story on stage. They play the softer moments especially beautifully, including "Race You to the Top of the Morning".
As for the cast of the production, everyone did a marvelous job. As a unit, the ensemble sounds wonderful and each player holds their own. Some strong performances included Shonna McEachern, who plays Martha Sowerby the maid, who is a joy to watch. Not only does she play it with a wee bit of sass and the right amount of kindness, she has the pipes to boot. Her song "If I Had A Fine White Horse" is beautifully sung and her Yorkshire accent is done well for the piece. Matthew Zahnzinger plays the brooding and quietly reserved Archibald Craven incredibly well. You see the guilt and sorrow he carries and brings such intensity to his moments. His song "A Bit of Earth" was a highlight of his performance and he plays it simply and you start to see a new side of him. Mary is played by up and coming Allsun O'Malley. She does a great job of carrying the show on her shoulders. She not only has a great interaction with the rest of the cast, but you genuinely see her grow throughout the show. With talent like that at such a young age, she will be one to look out for in future theatre productions around Boston. Each actor in the cast goes to great lengths to create a unique and interesting character. They succeed and bring a noticeably strong chemistry to the stage. When "There's a Girl" swells, the ensembles voices carry through the theatre wonderfully. Many kudos to the cast.
The lighting design uses so many different warm colors and tones that help create this world. One minute there are beautiful reds and oranges that really bring out the feeling of sunlight. The next, each actor has a small candle on a darkened stage during the Storm moments. It was a strong and effective lighting choice that helped convey the story. There is such variation that it brings such a great flavor to the production. The set is a hodgepodge of various items and I appreciated the detail that was implemented. Portraits and other items from the time period are displayed on the walls created an almost pack-rat feel that gave a sense of the disorder Archibald's world was in. Bits of the neglected garden sneaks its way through as well, bringing these worlds together. The costumes fit beautifully as well with the show and are a perfect reflection of the time period. Again, the details are amplified in the show from the soldier’s time period appropriate hats to the earthy tones for various members of the cast. It was a strong choice that not only makes sense for this show, but also blended well with the vision.
The Secret Garden is a classic story of growth, love and family. The Longwood Players create a beautiful production with a strong cast of talented actors. The emphasis of such powerful themes is present and each piece of the production contributes a great deal creating a wonderful visual for the stage. The importance of family is ever present throughout this show and teaches us the lesson that the future can be bright for everyone, even if we can't see it right away. There is hope. Everything comes together nicely and intertwined in a very unique way, creating a very enjoyable night of theatre.