BWW Review: Towne Centre's Sumptuously Sung THE SECRET GARDEN Captivates
Katharine Boettcher's glorious soprano is finally given the showcase it so richly deserves in the beautifully sung production of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's The Secret Garden, the oftentimes stirring and altogether bewitching story of a young orphaned girl forced to live with her mysterious uncle in his "house upon the hill" overlooking the moors of Yorkshire in the early part of the 20th Century.
Based upon the iconic novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the British-American author who grew up near Knoxville where her family emigrated to when they fell upon hard times toward the end of the American Civil War, The Secret Garden is the intriguing tale of a headstrong girl who must leave her beloved home in India when her parents and all the guests at a party they are hosting at their palatial home succumb to cholera while little Mary Lennox is sleeping. When discovered by members of the colonial army in the aftermath of the epidemic, young Mary is taken completely unawares, forced to leave behind her treasured possessions (save for a small framed likeness of her beloved Aunt Lily) and sent off on a journey to a family and a country she barely knows.
In director Tim Larson's iteration of The Secret Garden, Mary is played by Faith Dengate, a capable singer and actress who plays the spoiled and petulant character with sharp focus. In fact, all members of Larson's ensemble are to be commended for their resolute commitment to the material provided by Norman and Simon, whose brilliantly conceived libretto and score ensure audiences will be treated to an evening of top-flight musical theater.
It's a difficult show to pull off, truth be told, but Larson and his stalwart team of collaborators (including producer LaTonya Turner Riley, assistant director Catherine McTamaney, music director John Ray, stage manager Katie Veglio, Sound Designer Cameron Cleland and lighting designer Cathy Matthews) are more than equal to the challenge - their past collaborations have resulted in some of the best musical theater productions Nashville audiences have ever witnessed from a local team of artists - and The Secret Garden, despite some technical issues that seem to plague every production from time to time, is a highly satisfying and rather engrossing night of theater.
Simon's lush score is as lovely and captivating as it has ever been since the show's 1991 debut on Broadway and with Boettcher cast as the enigmatic and ethereal Lily Craven, audiences may rest assured that it is beautifully sung. In fact, we would venture to say that the show's leading lady has never sounded better and the production's dependence upon Boettcher (Lily is at the very center of the tale) to propel the plot ahead through its various twists and turns seems truly an inspired decision. Her performance of "Come To My Garden" will remain in your consciousness long after the final curtain figuratively has rung down.
As constructed by Norman in her Tony Award-winning book, Mary, Lily and the other principals in the timeless story are aided in their musical journey by a group of "dreamers" - ghosts from Mary's past on the subcontinent - who act as a Greek chorus of sorts to elaborate on the story's myriad details and to help guide the audience along its way, helping to focus their attention and to provide a sense of gravitas to the proceedings despite their otherworldly personae. Larson has chosen to cast the ensemble of dreamers with actors ranging in age from very young to adulthood, thus providing what is perhaps a more accessible take on the romantic story. Burnett's tale remains unharmed by the musicalization, welcoming a whole new generation of loyal fans to her following.
Dengate and Boettcher are accompanied on their fanciful journey - as the ghostly figures move in and out and all about the stage, contemporary figures in Mary's mournful, though ultimately hopeful, evolving life are portrayed in vivid fashion - by a cadre of supporting actors who supply the very heart and soul of the beautifully appointed production.
Chief among them are Kyle Pierce, as Mary's tortured Uncle Archibald Craven, whose grief for his late wife Lily has left him a mere shell of a man, and Noah Clark as his slightly devious and somewhat disconcerting brother, Dr. Neville Craven, whose bedside manner is definitely lacking. Norman's focus on the adult relationships is but one of the changes from the original source material (which focuses primarily on the relationships of Mary, Colin and Dickon).
Mary Corby is the very picture of household efficiency as Archibald's housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, although we longed to hear more of her lovely voice (frankly, the role fails to offer her the opportunity to show off her own dulcet tones). Brian Best excels as Mary's dead father and as the kindly, but crusty, estate groundskeeper Ben, with Holly Hill providing an engaging portrait of Lily's sister - and Mary's mum - Rose. Among the talented ensemble, noteworthy performances are added by handsome Lucas Eytchison, who cuts a dashing figure as a young British Army officer, and Melissa Ramsaur provides a sense of balance and security for Mary as her late, beloved Ayah.
Maya Riley, on-loan (as it were) for the summer from New York University while she's home with her family, is absolutely delightful as Mary's put-upon but always wonderfully unflinching maid Martha. Given what is perhaps the show's most memorable anthem - "Hold On" - to perform late in Act Two, Riley's rendition of the song is spot-on perfect, enlivening the lengthy second act with her skilled performance.
Sam Holt plays the spoiled and imperious Colin Craven - Lily and Archibald's crippled son - with scene-stealing glee, delivering his lines with zeal and more than holding his own during scenes with the cast's more seasoned veterans.
Finally, Connor Richardson, a sophomore at Franklin Road Academy, is ideally cast as gardener Dickon, maintaining his focus and his accent with admirable ease. Richardson has stage presence to spare and his name has been duly noted among the up-and-coming actors who call Nashville home.
The production's rather simple scenic design, which relies heavily upon stunning visual images to be projected onto a large upstage screen, ensures that the book and score of the The Secret Garden are given more attention in Larson's rendition of the show, allowing the literature upon which it is based to remain exquisitely relevant.
The Secret Garden. Book by Marsha Norman. Score by Lucy Simon. Directed by Tim Larson. Produced by LaTonya Turner Riley. Presented by Towne Centre Theatre, Brentwood. Through August 27. For tickets and other information, go to www.townecentretheatre.tix.com or by call (615) 221-1174. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
About the show The musicalization of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden opened Friday night, August 11 and runs through August 27 at Brentwood's Towne Centre Theatre in a new production directed by First Night Star Award winner Tim Larson. The Secret Garden features a book by Marsha Norman, with music by Lucy Simon.
Larson, highly regarded in the Nashville area for taking large-scale Broadway musicals to smaller stages with mostly volunteer performers to create memorable theatre experiences for local audiences, says The Secret Garden is one of his favorite musicals.
"Since I saw this show in New York in 1991 I fell in love with it," Larson explains. "Even though it veers from the book a bit, it does a great job of capturing the Victorian children's story that is rooted in enduring symbols of growth, self-sufficiency and moral triumph that cuts across generations and has become a musical classic for all ages."
Set in the early 20th century, The Secret Garden tells the story of 11-year-old Mary Lenox (played by Faith Dengate), who is orphaned in India and returns to Yorkshire, England, to live with her embittered, reclusive uncle Archibald and his invalid son Colin. The estate's many wonders include a magic garden which beckons the children with compelling melodies and the "Dreamers," spirits from Mary's past who guide her through her new life, dramatizing The Secret Garden's compelling tale of forgiveness and renewal.
While there are several popular, long-running musicals about orphans (Annie and Oliver! are prime example), The Secret Garden adds its haunting story and ghostly elements to a lush score that demands strong vocal talent to be successful onstage.
"I think this is a great show to direct at Towne Centre as it will bring the audience right into Misselthwaite Manor, its haunted rooms, gardens and, finally, the Secret Garden," Larson suggests. "The musical score although quite complex is one of the best that I have heard."
Under the musical direction of John Ray, the Towne Centre cast includes a bevy of local talent rising to the show's musical challenges. Besides Dengate, the cast includes Katharine Boettcher (Lily), Mary Corby (Mrs. Medlock), NoaH Clark (Dr. Neville Craven), Maya Riley (Martha Sowerby), Kyle Pierce (Archibald Craven), Connor Richardson (Dickon Sowerby), Sam Holt (Colin Craven) and Brian Best (Ben Weatherstaff).
The cast also includes several younger performers between ages nine and 15,who will be more prominently featured throughout the performance - a change from some earlier productions of the show.
"I added youth "Dreamers" because I wanted to convey that people of all ages were part of Mary's past and may have lived at Misselethwaite Manor throughout the years," he says
Larson is a proponent of non-traditional casting in order to create diversity among the characters in many shows he directs, including The Secret Garden.
"We have a cast of 28 performers, ranging in age from nine-years-old and up," Larson says. "Many have vast experience in musical theatre, a few are new to the stage, but all we cast in this show have great talent and I am excited to work with them."
The Secret Garden premiered on Broadway in 1991 and ran for 709 performances. It won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical; the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical.
Tickets to The Secret Garden may be purchased online at www.townecentretheatre.tix.com or by calling (615) 221-1174. Thursday, Friday and Saturday curtain is at 8 p.m., with Sunday shows at 2:30 p.m. Doors open 30 minutes prior to curtain. Tickets are $16 for students, $18 for military and seniors 60 and over, and $20 for adults. Towne Centre Theatre is located at 136 Frierson Street in Brentwood.