A big Victorian musical like THE SECRET GARDEN in the limited Cambridge Y performance space? Yes. But it seems counterintuitive to pack that small stage with as much flotsam and jetsam as you could find in your grandma’s attic. Then have all the characters, ghostly and living, on stage for most of the show! Heavens to Betsy!
Here’s the good news. Kaitlyn Chantry’s lovely production for the Longwood Players (playing through May 14th) works in surprising ways. One of the reasons it does is Brandon Thrasher’s ingenious lighting. When Dickon, the lad with the green thumb, sings about the spring sun coaxing shoots up through the ground, Thrasher throws a warm, yellow wash over the stage bathing all the still, observant characters in sepia, as if this were a formal Victorian photograph.
Crowding the stage doesn’t work only once, toward the end, in the exotic “spell” number when twenty characters attempt to circle each other in some unnecessarily clunky choreography. The rest of the time the solutions Chantry finds (for her space problems) are delightful. Here’s one of the tricks she has up her sleeve: With no room for a garden – and you have to have a garden to rejuvenate all the unhappy people – Chantry engineers a nifty reversal and Mary, the little girl who brings everyone back to life, enters the garden through the back wall of the set so all we see is blinding sunlight when she opens the doors. And we believe! Later we stand in for the garden and the characters point toward the audience admiring the roses. And that works too.
If you’re not impressed enough by the clever staging, here are more reasons to attend: A solid chorus, touching performances and the chance to hear Renée Saindon as Lily, one of the central ghosts. It was her death which left Mary’s uncle an emotional cripple. Once you hear her gorgeous voice, you understand his grief. Of course, you know that Mary’s indomitable spirit will heal him (and the child who survived when Lily did not). The role of Mary is double cast and when I attended, an angelic and enormously talented 9th grader named Allsun O’Malley won over our hearts.
The Frances Hodgson Burnett story is packed with overwrought sentiment, embodied in the character of Mary’s guardian/uncle, played with ferocious frailty by Mathew Zahnzinger. Burnett contrasts the weak willed gentry with the strong servant class and Shonna McEachern makes Mary’s chambermaid a font of warmth and affection. Jocelyn Hesse and Kevin Cirone supply the severity as Mary’s nemeses and Stephen Piergrossi, Jr. supplies the charm as the boy who can converse with animals. (I don’t want to give away any surprises so suffice it to say the director found a wonderful way to have the robin “speak” to Mary.)
Music director Jason Luciana gets exemplary singing from the entire cast: I’ve seen the show many times but hadn’t heard all of Marsha Norman’s lyrics before. I appreciated Lucy Simon’s sumptuous music more this time, too. A lot of care went into the Longwood production. If you love THE SECRET GARDEN, you’ll appreciate their labor. If you haven’t seen it, now is the time.