Saturday, April 13, 2013

REVIEW: Stageworks Northwest Presents the Musical Version of "The Secret Garden"

I have long been aware of "The Secret Garden" as a novel, a play, a musical and a movie, but I have never seen nor read the work. I have attributed its popularity to children (as it is primarily a children's tale) and have been disinterested, believing it to be a syrupy tale akin to Heidi.

I was scheduled to review "Camelot" at Rising Star, but I assigned that task to Dennis J. Sparks (read his review here) after my wife showed interest in seeing "The Secret Garden" (Winner of 3 Tony® Awards, the "reimagined" musical adaption brought to life by composer Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Night Mother), presented by Stageworks Northwest. It is with some trepidation that I went into this viewing since it was probably, as they say, not my cup of tea. It wasn't.

The work, the company's first full-length production in their new space, by Brit  Frances Hodgson Burnett, was first serialized beginning in the fall of 1910 and novelized in 1911. The children's classic concerns the tale of a sassy eleven year-old orphan and her 'spiritual' transformation as well as the physical transformation of a crippled boy she befriends and, it seems, a bunch of other stuff. It is a far too complex and convoluted of a story for stage--especially as a musical.

The Garden Plot

The story is full of symbolism and ideology inspired by the works of Christian Science writer Mary Baker Eddy (for whom the work was originally named as Mistress Mary) and is somewhat involved; it jumps forward and back in time and involves several threads that could be simplified. It would be best to be familiar with the story before seeing the production as it is hard to follow. To read more about the work, its themes and story you may view the Wikipedia site. One thing that might be helpful is to understand right up front that anyone dressed in white is either a ghost or spirit.

While Pollyannish at times, it is still a dark tale of death and life. The 'spiritual' themes are twisted and unsatisfying on some levels. I don't see how this can be considered a children's tale. Most of the few adult themes in the work will pass over the younguns heads; there are no language issues or suggestive actions.

Cultivating the Show

Seth Burns and Eleanor Stalick in "The Secret Garden"
All performers were very good vocalists--some quite exceptional (especially the leads). The show features many great melodies and harmonies which the actors nailed. The work has more than twenty-four songs with only a smattering of dialogue between numbers making it almost an opera. Which was, for me, somewhat taxing.

The male leads (Phillip Kennedy, Seth Burns and Caleb Pierce especially) were excellent vocalists and quite good in their diction. The female leads (especially Lorraine Little, Teresa Jansen and Ashley Stevens) were also outstanding and enunciated fairly well. While Katherine Jansen had a wonderful operatic voice, she, unfortunately, failed to hit a lot of consonants, making it hard to understand her.

Fourth-grader Adam Burckhardt did wonderfully, but truly amazing was thirteen-year-old Eleanor Stalick in the lead role. A charmer, fine actress and great vocalist! Formerly a chorus performer, this being her first lead...well, hard to believe. She is superb! Many of the performers were a bit stiff while singing and could have used more animation. However, Seth Burns was excellent at all times and quite adept at acting through his songs.

Weeding out the Technical

While opening night was hampered with some audio difficulties (at two points the show was stopped to correct them) and the lighting only barely adequate (a problem they are aware of and working on improving for future productions when they have more money for instruments) the show was beautifully executed. The faux-painted set, designed by Adam Pithan and Janeene Niemi, was stunning (Melissa Gilbertson also deserves credit in the paint department), and the score (pre-recorded tracks) was quite lovely.

Costumes, by Lynn Jansen, were quite nice as well. A scrim and some textured lighting would have greatly enhanced the show's look and helped separate some of the foreground scenes (especially the garden). [In the future I hope they will put in a fly loft since there is room.] The choreography was simplistic and uninspiring.

Direction, by Bethany Pithan, was good, but could have been better had the actors been given more business (especially during their musical numbers). Dialects (several English accents as well as a Scottish brogue) were excellent and consistent--even during singing. Vocal direction and styling by Michelle Myre were tight and beautiful.

Stageworks Northwest's new space.
The play runs now through May 12 with showings 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (except for Sunday April 21 only when it shows at 1 p.m.) at the Historic Longview Theater (which is now home to Stageworks NW), 1433 Commerce Ave., Longview, Wash. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased online.

Review by Gregory E. Zschomler.

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