Death Makes a Holiday
The artfully negotiated tug-of-war that takes place between mortals and spirits in The Secret Garden reaches its apotheosis when an anguished widower and his departed wife finally resolve to set each other free. Summoning a lyrical eloquence that occasionally surfaces elsewhere in the Town Hall Arts Center's enjoyable production, two talented singers join in a beautifully realized paean to undying love. As the moving duet draws to a close, it's clear that this 1991 musical adaptation, which is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel, derives as much power from the clash of interworldly forces as it does from their inevitable happy-ending union.
While a few scenes unfold in rudimentary fashion, director Sharlene Wanger manages to articulate the play's essential conflicts. This is especially true during the imaginatively staged opening sequence, which introduces us to the leading character, Mary Lennox, who becomes an orphan when her parents die during a cholera epidemic in colonial India. Shortly after being whisked from her canopied bed by a couple of servants, Mary -- accompanied by her governess and legions of white-uniformed "spirits" who hover throughout -- arrives in England, where she takes up residence in the manse of her eccentric uncle, Archibald Craven. There, amid an atmosphere of repression that's as much the product of her uncle's unresolved grief as it is Victorian society's stale mores, Mary searches for a way to deal with her parents' death. Although her uncle laments that he can't give his niece the ideal two-parent home she deserves, he eventually discovers that her plight and his sadness have a common source -- and, as the musical's sprightly finale indicates, a shared solution.
Fine singing voices, smooth transitions and a pleasing array of design choices all lend the two-and-a-half-hour show a professional look and feel, if not always suitable measures of spontaneity. At times the actors coast through pivotal, character-defining episodes -- such as when Archibald first sets eyes on his long-lost niece, or when Mary meets up with a couple of "strangers" in the estate's gardens -- as if they were more intent on bracing for the next scene change or handkerchief-waving display from the chorus of portentous phantoms (who represent people from Mary's life in India). But even though a few exchanges lack the spark of discovery, most of the performers possess a firm understanding of Marsha Norman's poetic lyrics, and even greater command of Lucy Simon's lovely score.
Leading the company is Sara Smith, whose portrait of Mary is an infectious mixture of girlish curiosity and upright determination. The gifted actress, who earlier this season charmed local theatergoers with her brave turn as Scout in the Arvada Center's To Kill a Mockingbird, wisely stops short of pushing the role to its melodramatic limits, choosing instead to respond to each new revelation -- and each subsequent dilemma -- as if it were a necessary, though ill-fitting, piece in life's jigsaw puzzle. And when Mary finally gets a chance to see the door to the forbidden garden, Smith's rapturous leap for joy is enough to part Act One's clouds of predictability. It's a marvelously refreshing performance that conveys a young girl's hopes, dreams and complexities without a shred of petulance or angst.
As Mary's beleaguered uncle, David Ambroson imbues Archibald's arduous arias with emotional depth and musical craftsmanship. His duets with the superb Sheryl Corbijn, who plays his deceased wife, Lily, prove the show's strongest scenes. Despite being shackled by the staging convention that prohibits eye contact between members of the natural and supernatural worlds, the affable pair forges a passionate, tender and convincing relationship. After a shaky start, Mark Whitten settles comfortably into the role of Dickon, a plucky sprite who slyly -- and poignantly -- encourages Mary to peer around death's veil: "A lot of things that look dead are just biding their time," he observes. Kristin Bearly is endearing as Martha, the no-nonsense attendant who each morning sees to it that Mary is properly attired and, for the most part, pointed in the right direction. As Archibald's manipulative brother, Neville, Scott Lubinski finds most of the physician's misplaced ambition and frustration, particularly when he declares in Act Two that he could "be happy and live like other men" if only his supposed loved ones would simply disappear. Matt Gottlieb is touching as Archibald's bedridden son, Colin, and Geraldine Byrne shines as Mrs. Medlock, Mary's officious but ultimately relenting governess.
As was the case with its recent production of 1776, the Town Hall still needs to concentrate on orchestrating smallish episodes that define character and propel plot. Overall, though, the group's commitment to high production values has translated into shows that maximize each work's entertainment value without compromising its inherent musicality. By adding a healthy dose of unpredictability to the mix, the company's future efforts will likely radiate with as much wonderment as they do enthusiasm.
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