Photo courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography
Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman’s ‘The Secret Garden’- based on the iconic novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett - has a terrific score and a beautiful script, but is the kind of title that doesn’t necessarily sell out theatre houses. Due to its technical complexity, and daring themes ranging from abandonment to death, I bet you could count on one hand the times you’ve seen or heard of a production company mounting “The Secret Garden." Alas, The Encore Musical Theatre Company relishes in taking risks, and manages to utilize the intimacy within their walls to cultivate a unique “Secret Garden” viewing experience.
Under the direction of Cami Glauser, The Encore has exceeded expectations in producing this heart-wrenching show with it’s powerful motifs and music. The musical, like the 1911 novel, tells the tale of 10-year-old Mary Lennox (who at this performance was the supremely gifted and talented 7th grader Lily Wright, who will alternate with Jojo Engelbert) who loses her parents to the fatal bacterial disease cholera at the turn of the century in British Raj. Upset and alone, she’s shipped off to her gloomy uncle Archibald Craven’s (Jay Montgomery) manor in Yorkshire, England. Though Archibald and his crippled son Colin (Caden Martel) mourn the loss of wife and mother Lily (Sarah B. Stevens), new hope for the family begins to bloom when Mary, days after arriving and poking around where she shouldn’t, discovers a magical secret garden that was started by Lily.
The key to the Encore’s success here starts with Wright in a star-is-born performance; Wright carries the emotional heft of an orphaned girl acting out in response to the loss of her parents, while at the same time providing the beautiful beating heart that drives the narrative. Songs like “The Girl I Mean to Be” swept me up and you can tell why The Encore needed to split the role among two, I’m sure, talented young ladies. After all, the show must flourish on Mary’s journey of redemption, and if we don’t believe the pain and anguish suffered, it’s no use trying to sell it. It’s a lot to ask of teens, but it’s shouldered well under The Encore’s roof.
Equally moving is Jay Montogmery as the tormented Craven, who is matched vocally with Sarah Stevens operatic and angelic voice in the duet “How Could I Ever Know” as well as with David Moan as Dr. Nevill Craven, especially during “Lily's Eyes.” Moan has a tendency to find himself playing the snobbish Brit (see The Dio’s “A Gentleman Guide’s To Love and Murder”), leading man (“Sweeney Todd,” “Big Fish”) or comic relief (“Act of God” or “Anything Goes”) in all the instances I’ve seen him on stage regionally and though I should grow tiresome of seeing him in roles that have some common similarities, Moan always finds new ways to make characters seem fresh and he’s never boring to watch. As the maid Martha, Dawn Purcell belts a stunning rendition of “Hold On” (and boasts terrific physical dexterity). Fresh off his role in “Fun Home,” Tyler J. Messinger brings animation and charisma to the role of Dickon, and gives exorbitant life to “Winter’s on the Wing.”
Director Glauser manages to tell a well-paced story with solid staging, allowing Music Director Tyer Driskill’s grand ensemble (among them Dan Morrison, Jake Jedele, Mithcell Hardy, Brandan Bachman, Mark Berstein, Rachael Cupples, Eli Engelbert, Angela Hench, Natalie Sevick, Mary Rumman, Taylor Towers, and Michael Szymanski) who all play various roles in the production to take center stage (Driskill and his team of musicians certainly help give them the tools to succeed). My only qualm with “The Secret Garden” was how, at times, it seemed difficult to differentiate who was alive, and who was dead. But, on the other hand, blurring the lines between reality and death offers a unique worldview that, in the end, quietly elevated “The Secret Garden.” Whether that was intentional or not, I was here for it. In addition, the entire design team, notably Jacquiln Stauder (scenic) and Sharon Urick (costumes) pull out some real surprises, including a piece of scenery that caught me off guard. I’m choosing not to reveal the device as it’s best saved for the live experience, though I’m sure it won’t be hard to figure out. Nonetheless, it’s a nifty trick The Encore pulls off seamlessly.
Additionally, I was a big fan of the creative component used as a backbone for the production. Strauder’s scenery is dressed with empty walls and picture frames (the ghost ensemble often step in and out of them) creating this idea of solitude and loneliness or perhaps that there are always those on the outside looking in, taking care of us even in the afterlife. The frames of our trauma don’t have to confine us, and, as seen with the unfolding of Mary's grueling backstory, we can break free from the mold. Hats off to the Encore for also finding a distinctive way in creating the actual garden itself in tight quarters. Utilizing the entire cast to help create this never ending maze of wonder and enchantment is a beautiful tactic in world building and inclusion of the characters in the story.
The Encore Musical Theatre Company's production of THE SECRET GARDEN continues through December 22nd. To purchase tickets and to view showtimes click here