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Moving and Poetic..."The Secret Garden" at Music Mountain

"Exciting new talent in many of the leads"

By John Dwyer

“The Secret Garden” is a beautiful story that originally was first told in serial form (a la Charles Dickens) in the monthly, “American Magazine” from November 1910 to August 1911. It was published as a novel in 1911. Due to its popularity, it became a film in 1949 with Margaret O’Brien as the girl who is orphaned and goes to live at her rich uncle’s home. The film was thought to be a little too dark at the time for some people, who wanted escapism. The film was re-done, in 1993 and received quite favorable reviews. The story, having been a serialized tale, is quite involving with an intriguing plot, that has its twists and turns to keep its readers coming back for more. In 1991 it was made into a musical starring Mandy Patinkin, Rebecca Luker and Daisy Egan. It won the Tony that year for Best Musical.

Music Mountain has done a beautiful job of bringing the musical to the stage. I was familiar with the 1949 film, which left a deep impression. (Thank you Turner Classic Movies). But not so much the musical. Marsha Norman’s script diverts from the original novel material in giving more time to the adults and less to the children to whom “the secret garden” is a magical refuge. So much time that you might think the uncle is the protagonist, when it really is the child, Mary. The antagonists are multiple. It is the uncle Archibald Craven, his brother Dr. Neville Craven and Mrs. Medlock, the head of the servants at Misselthwaite Manor (Archibald Craven’s home). None of these characters seem to want the obligation of taking care of a child, let alone ‘Lil Orphan” Mary. It is out of duty/obligation. Nothing else.

The show begins with Mary losing her family to cholera in India. Most everyone in her village has died, including her parents, but Mary has been found alive. She goes to live with her uncle Archibald Craven, who is an unpleasant man, hunchbacked and made more miserable and desolate with the loss of his wife Lily, who was the sister of Mary’s mother Rose. (A change from the novel made by Marsha Norman, where Archibald was the brother of Mary’s father). The arc of the story is Mary’s transformation from an overprivileged, arrogant, spoiled beast of a child to a caring and loving girl. There are many situations that bring this on but one of them is The Secret Garden, which is symbolic of so much.

Not since Music Mountain’s “Carousel” has there been such a visually beautiful production. There is a certain lyricism in the staging with white costumed ghosts with blood red handkerchiefs being flicked at a child in her surrealistic, disturbing fantasies of pain and loss. The house is filled with ghosts, one most notably is Lily Craven, Mary’s aunt and Archibald’s wife, who died from an accident when she was pregnant with her son Colin. Colin survived but is an invalid and hidden away. Colin is taken care of, as per the instructions of his absent, seemingly uncaring father, by his physician & uncle D. Craven and the haughty Mrs. Medlock. Nowhere is there anything close that resembles love and empathy in this house.. That is except for Mary’s maidservant Martha and her brother Dickon, who become her friends. The theme is healing. After loss and abandonment, whether child or adult, there is a healing journey back to love, family, friends, community.

The show is double cast in the children’s roles of Mary and Colin. Mary is played by Lillian Irene and Nora Bella Kushnier. Colin by Matthew Golian and Peter Picini. The night I saw it Lilian Irene was playing Mary and she was amazing. A wonderful acting job by her, which is no small feat. The transition to being a happy, loving child is slow and needs to be handled honestly. Beautifully sung and, as this is a story, most importantly wonderfully acted by this actress. If she wants it, theater could be a home for this young talent. If you see both actresses, you will be in for a treat listening to Ms. Kushnier’s lovely voice. I did come back to check out the different casts and was also duly impressed. I only stayed a moment for the second show but could tell how wonderful this young lady is. Both young gentlemen did a fine job as the invalid son Colin. Music Mountain Theatre prides itself in developing young talent. It is a wonderful learning ground for the very talented young people that this area is blessed to have.

Louis Palena is one of the best actors at Music Mountain. He gave a fine performance as Archibald, though, for me, he could have been more cold in his demeanor. This man was never particularly nice or attractive, as noted by his deceased wife’s sister Rose( Jenny McNiven). The role calls for him to be empty and heartless…he has abandoned his son, after all. Cold is not the easiest thing to capture, especially for a person who is naturally warm. But heartless zombie is what Mr. Craven is. The duet “Lily’s Eyes” between him and his brother is one of the highlights of the show. Palena and Andrew Ferrie make that number soar. Ferrie made his debut at Music Mountain as that brother, Dr. Neville Craven. He had a craven, despicable, weaselly demeanor that nevertheless somehow drew you in. Kudos. Libby Kane as Lily has one of the purest voices. It is Broadway quality. The voice of an angel. Her “Opening Dream” number and “Come to the Garden” were stunning. I have worked with Lauren Brader before and didn’t know who she was until quite a bit into the show. An amazing actress, as Mrs. Medlock she, like the chameleon she is, was older, with a Yorkshire accent and totally unrecognizable. Great work by Ms. Brader. Jenna Parilla Alvino has one of the best voices around and sings with such exuberance, joyfulness and expressiveness that you always want more. Her “A Fine White Horse” got a huge deserved response. David Laraus defines the word charming. He plays Dickon, Mary’s friend and her maidservant Martha’s younger brother. The character is guileless, playful, filled with the love of the beauty of nature…a more poetic, English version of Tom Sawyer and Mr. Laraus is spot on with his characterization. He totally commanded the stage with his outstanding singing of “Winter’s on the Wing.”

Jordan Brennan did an amazing job with this talented cast. Along with the set design and his great skill and eye as a costume designer, this production is gorgeous to look at. It is swimming visually in a turn of the early 20th century poetry and elegance.

Magic is happening in “The Secret Garden” at MMT, thanks to this wonderful cast headed by Palena and Irene and Kushnier. Along, with an incredible ensemble of actors who sing about the joy of finding home for those who lost it from grief and pain is what brought the audience to their feet on opening night. There is a way back home through the garden. The show runs thru. Feb 19th.

Photos by John Posada

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