The Barnstormers present a spirited, if not conflicted, rendition of Lucy Simon's and Marsha Norman's The Secret Garden with a grand epic flare that truly accentuates the group's strengths and weaknesses in the arena of musical theatre. The show, which opened Saturday, April 5 at the Swirnow Theatre, and which will run from April 10-12 at 8 to p.m. (with a 2 p.m. matinee on April 13) finds the plucky, maturing Barnstormers in fine form, apparently not afraid to tackle the dark, operatic vision of Simon's theatre, adapted from the popular novel by Frances Hodges Burnett.
The fairy tale musical tells the enchanting story of Mary Lennox, an orphaned girl who is sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven in a haunted Yorkshire manor after a cholera epidemic in Bombay kills her parents. Archibald still grieves over the loss of his beloved wife, Lily, who died 10 years earlier during childbirth. His menacing brother, Dr. Neville Craven, presides over affairs, including Archibald's bedridden son, Colin. The bored, lonely Mary immediately breathes new life into the dark halls, and she befriends her maid, Martha, and the sprite gardener, Dickon. However, the pain of Lily's death keeps Archibald at a distance and Colin afraid of death, and the musical brings both living and dead characters together, interacting but not communicating. With the inspired discovery of a secret garden that had once belonged to Lily, Mary and her friends nurse the decaying garden back to life, restoring passion and health to her grieving uncle and his sick son.
The musical benefits from a largely epic scale in terms of lyrical substance, musical direction and characterization, all of which are not proven crowd-pleasers. Although the tale is deceptively innocent, the vision of the musical is geared to an older audience, with no memorable musical numbers, save for the haunting score. As The Barnstormers tackle the deep musical range of the show, and mature material, I have to give credit to an inspired production and talented young singers. Yet, somehow, the magic of The Secret Garden gets lost in the effort.
Elizabeth Horton brings a defiant charm to the role of the young Mary Lennox, and the show essentially rests on her execution of the musical numbers. Thankfully, Horton enjoys a fine vocal range and spirited acting talents to truly transform herself into a 10-year-old girl. The pint-sized freshman leads the ensemble, and without her indelible embodiment of Mary, the show may have failed to blossom.
Haunting the halls and gardens of the manor, Lisa Taylor lends her angelic voice to the spirit of Lily, a woman trapped by her love for poor Archibald. Taylor's gift awes the entire production, and her melodramatic performance blends nicely with the material.
Unfortunately, Tom Mansell's Archibald does not offer a worthy voice to share the final duet with Taylor's Lily. Mansell's portrayal of the grieving hunchback is fine, if not strained on occasion, but while expressing deep sorrow through music, his voice often falls flat. By the second act, Mansell seems to improve, although he, along with many members of the cast, fail to project their voices, which is especially key on a thrust stage arrangement. In the meantime, Mansell manages to boldly hit the right notes at the right times in large dramatic moments, but elsewhere, he appears more bored than depressed.
The same goes for Helen Bayer in her performance as Colin. With the opportunity to switch gender, Bayer delivers a suitably spoiled Colin, except that her vocal expressions are not particularly apt. Perhaps this is what she was shooting for, but her weak, scratchy voice sounds ill and ill-conceived. Of course, what she lacks in vocal talent, she is strong in bringing humor to scenes that tend to lull.
Kateri Chambers provides charming hilarity and pathos as Martha, and throughout the production she threatens to steal the show. In every scene, Chambers exudes passion for the role, and along with Horton and Ben Kingsland as Dickon, the three provide plenty of energy. Kingsland is a true supporting star, and brings elfish magic to Dickon, despite vocals that rest on shaky ground. Although he sings of nature and life, Kingsland manages to escape the trap of a one-note character with his fine ability to draw attention to himself, even away from the leads.
Kingsland shares this ability with Mark Gardner as Neville Craven, the nefarious doctor who once loved Lily, and now holds a brutal force over the house upon the hill. Gardner's voice is outstanding, and in his duets and quartets with fellow cast members, he captures a Broadway talent, with plenty of bravo theatrics. Perfectly suited for the supporting role of Neville, Gardner stands alone in his ability to be both menacing and powerful in his vocal range.
The remaining ensemble of ghosts from the Bombay cholera epidemic and the useless characters of gardener Ben and Mrs. Medlock, portrayed by Praem Phulwani and Anjana Muralidharan respectively, are more than fine on occasion, though there are a few mistakes along the way. Yet, when the chorus harmonizes on and off stage, one can't help but consider this to be the strongest musical cast in recent Hopkins theatre. Producers Jill Rafson and Jamie Graziano and director Dianna Shuster have assembled a fine cast, despite a handful of uninspired choices.
With a talented cast to rest upon, a few of the production values feel uneven. Shuster's direction is predominantly faithful to the source material, but a few of the scenes do not particularly work in regards to the logic of the show. The show does indeed stall, partly through repetition and lackluster musical sequences. Often the actors stumble through their spoken lines, which contribute to this atmosphere, only to bloom with a bit of music.
Shuster and choreographer Tara Feehan, however, manage to enliven ensemble musical sequences along with the stage crew, cleverly depicting the maze of hallways and garden walls with movable props. Furthermore, Feehan's choreography, her first attempt, is quite good, including a whirlwind opening set, as she manages to keep 24 actors in movement throughout the production, although a few of them need to work on synchronizing their moves. With very little dancing, perhaps too little even for this musical, the show is at its best when the ensemble is interacting with the principles in a busy musical performance.
Yet, in the final sequence, set in the revitalized secret garden, the moment the entire musical has been leading up to, I was genuinely disappointed with the set. Granted, with a shoestring budget this is to be expected, but after dreary, minimalist sets, I wanted to see flowers everywhere, and experience the magic of the finale, visually as well as aurally. Perhaps this will provoke the powers that fund The Barnstormers to increase their budget next year.
Meanwhile, this production proves The Barnstormers have, excuse the pun, grown as a theatre force committed to challenging themselves, even if their vision isn't always consistent. The magic of The Secret Garden is not always evident, especially when the young actors forget that they are performing in the round. Especially with dark, melodramatic material, the two-hour and change production can be numbing, but the cast and crew manage to keep the show moving along, one way or another, with solid camaraderie.