BWW Reviews: NextStop Theatre Company Presents THE SECRET GARDEN

There's something amiss at Misselthwaite. Ten years after the loss of the mistress of the house, Lily, the manor is dark, gloomy and haunted by spirits both from the house and far away. The master, Dr. Archibald Craven, can't let go of the memories of the love of his life, nor can he connect with a new arrival, his niece Mary, who has lost both of her parents to a cholera outbreak in India. As Lily and the ghosts of the manor circle its inhabitants, it is up to all those with hope of spring and simply being happy to find the way back.

While this sounds like a rather dark premise, and it is, NextStop Theatre Company's current production of THE SECRET GARDEN is rather lovely. Adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 classic, the show teeters a line between opera and musical theatre with a sweeping score, a chorus of "dreamers" who wander the halls and form tableaus around the characters, and more abstract, pastoral songs.

This is my first time both seeing this musical and attending a production at NextStop. As far as adaptation, the musical follows very closely with the book. The music is stunning and has a bit of a range in styles which helps balance out the more morose, narrative songs. There are plot points added in to develop the adult characters more; however, they do occasionally feel a bit unfinished.

Director EVAN HOFFMAN has given this production a very unique flow. The pace never wavers, and the actors who appear make sense in the scene, or add to it. There are a few tableaus where central characters wander among the dreamers, and the creepy nature of it just works. This production captures your attention from the start, and doesn't let go.

Given the amount of space in the theatre, you could worry that it won't be enough for the show. But NextStop handles this quite well. Scenic Designer ANDREW COHEN's setup for the majority of the show is a large dark panelled wall with a few doors. The wall is adorned with a series of picture frames which display a number of scene-related images, from damask fabric to flowers. It's a very cool effect, and it helps transform the somewhat neutral background. Costume Designer KRISTINA MARTIN gives the characters a series of lovely costumes, especially Lily, and and allows the colors to show a bit more as the show progresses.

THE SECRET GARDEN involves several difficult numbers, but this is a cast that can more than handle it. KATIE KEYSER as Lily is a stunning soprano who truly makes you believe that Lily is the driving force of all those who remember and need her. JOHN LOUGHNEY as Archibald Craven continuously displays the disconnected, haunted nature of his character, but also manages to make meaningful and funny scenes count as well. His voice rings through the theatre, and you really wonder if he would ever need a microphone. BOBBY LIBBY as Dr. Neville Craven gives a good range to a commanding but somewhat underdeveloped character.

CAITLIN SHEA is adorable and warm as Martha, and SEAN MCCORMAS's performance as Dickon is stellar. His playful but purposeful interaction with Mary truly displays what makes her character change. McCormas has a challenge with "Winter's on the Wing", which isn't the most engrossing song, but he holds the audience on his own all the same. The best scenes involve these two actors in the garden, just enjoying what they do.

There are also, of course, two child actors who hold their own with the adults. For this performance, Mary was played by ISABELLA BRODY and Colin by ELI SCHULMAN. As Mary, Brody is a phenomenal young talent. She allows Mary to grow and warm up over the course of the show, to where the first real smile you see is such a full circle moment. She is funny, pensive and engrossing. Schulman is very sweet as Colin and makes you adore him from the start. I very much hope these actors continue on this path, since they will be immensely fun to watch.

As the winter weather (hopefully) fades from the DC area, this production is one to see. See it for the performances, the smart use of space and staging, to remember the story and just because it's that good.

THE SECRET GARDEN plays now through April 19th at NextStop Theatre Company in Herndon. The runtime is about two and a half hours. For more information, visit the production page. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

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From This Author Heather Nadolny

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