Take a trip to M&D’s ‘Secret Garden’
BY ALEC KERR
THE CONWAY DAILY SUN
M& D Playhouse is offering a lavish presentation of “The Secret Garden,” a musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, Thursday through Sunday for the next four weeks.
Set during the early 20th century, “The Secret Garden” centers on Mary Lennox (Maja Stanley for the first two weeks and Chloe Laine for the second two weeks), an English girl growing up in India who is orphaned following a cholera outbreak. She is sent to live with her emotionally distant uncle Archibald (Michael Murphy), who lives in the Yorkshire Moors in a large English country house.
Archibald’s wife Lily (Alicia Tirey) died 10 years earlier under tragic circumstances, leaving him a sickly son Colin (Alexander Lottman for the first two weeks and Leilani Eling for the second two weeks) who is under the care of Archibald’s brother Dr. Neville Craven (Zack Balkcom).
As Archibald is sleepwalking through life, the spoiled Mary is left to her own devices. She connects with her maid Martha (Izzy Lawson), Martha’s outdoorsy brother Dickon (Blujay Groves), and, eventually, Colin. Together, they find Lily’s secret garden which Archibald locked away following Lily’s death.
This adaptation, with a book and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, debuted on Broadway in 1991. It went on to win a Tony Award for Best Book and Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Musical and Book.
Norman’s reworking of the material is peculiar and ponderous and often shifts the focus away from Mary and her relationships with her new friends.
The spirits of Lily, Mary’s mother and father (Hannah-Jo Weisberg and Zach Poster) as well as the other cholera victims (Mackenzie Hester, Cosette Brochu, Grayson Smith, Seth Ferguson, Barbara Plonski, Frank Thompson, Lillian Drew, James Innes and Summer Smith-Hemeon) are weaved throughout the musical through memories and dreams. These characters sometimes act as a Greek chorus and perform recurring themes, including, most hauntingly, “The House Upon the Hill.”
While these characters are beautifully costumed by Patty Hibbert, they largely distract from the discovery of the garden and its healing powers. These themes are still present but sometimes feel lost during the various hauntings.
The script also makes Dr. Craven an antagonist who schemes to inherit the manor by keeping Colin ill. “Secret Garden” is a story of renewal and friendship. It doesn’t need a traditional villain. To his credit, Balkcom performs the part well and has a strong voice that he showcases on “Lily’s Eyes” and “Disappear.”
When the script does focus on Mary, director Mark Sickler gets some of the best material out of his cast. The strongest scenes are those with Mary interacting with Martha, Dickon, and Colin.
Lawson has a lovely voice which shines on the songs “If I Had A Fine White Horse,” “Hold On” and “Letter Song.” She also has an engaging and joyful stage presence that plays nicely off of Stanley’s Mary.
Groves also has a nice voice and playful stage presence that helps to elevate Stanley’s performance as Mary. Both Groves and Lawson are clearly having fun with the Yorkshire accent, particularly Groves, who brings an impish quality to Dickon.
Unfortunately, Groves’ sweet voice gets lost on songs like “Winter’s on the Wing” and “Wick” as the prerecorded music is, at times, too loud, drowning Groves out. This also happens to Stanley and Lottman who are often barely audible. Hopefully, this can be corrected with a better sound mix.
Stanley and Lottman’s scenes are cute together because they capture the essence of the love/hate relationship children can have with each other. Their bickering is amusing.
Murphy gives Archibald a weary, haunted quality that is quite affecting. He is a powerful vocalist who pours deep emotion into songs like “A Bit of Earth,” “Lily’s Eyes” and “Race You to the Top of the Morning.” Tirey provides an emotional highlight with “Come to My Garden.”
This is a lovingly mounted production with a simple but effective set design by Deb Jasien capturing the manor and its grounds. The colorful lighting design by Michael Clark Wonson is by turns moody and magical. Once again, Hibbert’s costumes completely sell the authenticity of the era.