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Sunday, 04 August 2013 20:59

'The Secret Garden': I See dead people, and they're singing

Written by Laura Kyro
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'The Secret Garden': I See dead people, and they're singing
hawthorneplayers.com

The Hawthorne Players, now in their 68th year, are currently staging a somewhat uneven production of "The Secret Garden" at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre.

When it was good, it was amazing, but sound and light problems, strange lighting choices, puzzling set dressing, come and go English accents, uneven pacing, and song lyrics that were difficult to understand when groups were singing, brought the production down at times. In all, however, I feel some of these concerns may be smoothed out in subsequent performances, so for me it ends up in the positive column and I believe this show is definitely worth a visit.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved 1911 book became a stage musical in 1991 and won three Tony Awards (book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon). The story is that of orphaned Mary Lennox (an interesting Lauren Berkowitz), who comes to her hunchbacked Uncle Archibald's (the definitely impressive Tim Callahan) forbidding house in Yorkshire, England. There she meets chambermaid Martha (a fantastic Courtney LaBelle Jackson), and Martha's brother Dickon (perfectly-cast Danny Grumich). Mary learns of a secret garden on the estate that was once tended by Archibald's wife (Mary's Aunt) Lily (wow, Eileen Wallhermfechtel). Mary hears someone crying in the house and finds the room of Archibald's ten-year-old son, Colin (Casey Mead). Lily died when Colin was born, so, while Archibald loves his son, in hurt he withholds taking part in Colin's life. Archibald's physician brother, Neville (Jon Hey)--for his own selfish reasons--stokes Archibald's fear that his son may turn out to be a hunchback as well, and so keeps the boy sedated in bed where the child is wasting away. It is Mary who eventually causes beneficial changes in the bleak home, not only finding and restoring the secret garden, but also restoring Colin to health and uniting the father and son. A heartwarming story.

Over half of the cast is comprised of deceased ghosts or "dreamers" (Lily herself, British nationals and local natives who perished from Cholera in India while Mary survived) who sometimes interact with the living cast, provide scene change cover, back story, and act as a Greek chorus.

First-time Director Stephanie Merritt did well overall, definitely scoring well in casting the production. The orchestra (led by Musical Director Nate Jackson) was supportive, not overpowering the singers. The set (Kent Coffel, Dennis Dudenhoeffer, Stephanie Merritt) was in general well executed, and use of a transparent scrim and flying pieces fit in nicely. Lighting (Tony Anselmo) was in general well done. The costumes (Jean Heckmann), especially the white as worn by the deceased, were beautiful and appropriate for all characters. A special shout out to choreographer Lauren Kistner, and Mike Hodges, for their beautiful dance as the young Lily and Archibald. And one more shout out to Hawthorne for springing for a beautiful Showbill program. Impressive.

Technically, as I indicated earlier, the performance I saw had some concerns. Actors were speaking or singing in darkness at times, microphones were on or off or half way on, chorus numbers couldn't be understood, non-miced cast members didn't project their lines, a wayward wig, a lighting effect on stage right that was more annoying than effective, the secret garden's door camouflage on a set piece that was so obvious as to be distracting, and a "Bollywood" dance that popped up seemingly without a lot of reason was confusing. That said, again, many of these problems may no longer be a problem with repeated performances, and I was glad to have experienced the show, not the least because of several impressive individual performances.

"The Secret Garden" runs through August 11, 2013. For more information: www.hawthorneplayers.com.

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