All of Chicagoland’s musical theater community is rooting for the success of Lake Forest Theatre, the newly realized, longtime dream of Managing and Artistic Director Steve Malone. The company’s inaugural production of The Secret Garden isn’t a flawless production right out of the gate, but certainly hints at some greatness to come.Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel has been enchanting readers since 1911 with the heart-tugging story of the orphan Mary Lennox, who loses her parents to a cholera outbreak in India. Soon after, she is sent to England to live with her reclusive Uncle Archibald in a secluded, spooky manor atop the Yorkshire moors. The house is haunted by spirits of the past as well as by the grief-stricken living, and Mary immediately feels her own alienation mingling in with the loneliness of all around her. With the help of some of the kindly servants, Mary discovers her Aunt Lily’s hidden garden, neglected and overgrown with vines. She also happens upon her sickly cousin Colin, kept out of sight in the depths of the manor, bearing the guilt of his mother’s death on his crippled shoulders. Empowered by her new friendships, Mary begins to prune and pare away the layers of sadness that cover the garden, the house,and its inhabitants. Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon adapted the novel into a musical in 1991, bringing the beloved story in new way to new generations, and going on to win three Tony Awards.
It’s a compelling but curious choice to open the first season of a new theater. The show has a kind of cult following among performers, due mostly to the gorgeous and demanding score, but has historically returned mixed reviews from critics and audiences. Part of the challenge seems to be achieving the right tone. On one hand, there’s a feel-good, family-friendly, holiday show feel that is expected from an adaptation of a popular children’s book. On the other hand, its themes of death, grief, disease and dark passions combine with its overall eeriness to produce the kind of mood that appeals more to fans of Sweeney Todd or Jekyll & Hyde. (Throughout the show, for example, there is a kind of Greek chorus of ghosts, referred to in the libretto as “dreamers,” who serve as narrators.) It’s a rare director who can guide a production to the magical Venn diagram place where those two aspects overlap in an appealing way. Malone’s version comes pretty close, if just shy of the mark.
The lovely and lyrical score is superbly served by Music Director Aaron Kaplan and an impressive 15-piece live orchestra, efficiently housed backstage. The music sounds amazing in the newly renovated, 300+ seat John & Nancy Hughes Theatre which promises great sight lines and acoustics from every seat. On opening weekend, a few of the singers struggled with notes seemingly outside of their ranges—a weakness that may find itself strengthened later on in the run. The cast sounds best during the large numbers, where the harmonies are shared more evenly among the more gifted vocalists. Two of the best vocalists turn out to be the youngest of the featured cast: Carly Meyer as Mary (she shares the role with Kailey Albus) and Zachary Fewkes as Colin are outstanding.
David Geinosky’s set design, David Miller’s lighting and David Lundholm’s costumes conspire to create a stunning Victorian setting, with much of the action taking place in the ethereal mindscape of dreams, memories and fantasies. The overall effect is moodily beautiful, if a little muddled. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which of the characters speaking are from the past or the present. This might be appropriate thematically, to underscore the confusion of the characters themselves as their pasts are entangled with their presents, but the unfortunate side effect is that the audience is confused as well. Some of this could be clarified with more hands-on direction of the scenes that come between musical numbers. The songs are staged clearly and well, revealing character and moving the plot forward, while in contrast, many of the straight scenes lack authenticity and connection between the actors. It’s unclear if that is due to under-direction, an especially wordy script or some combination of the two.
It is not, however, to be counted against the talent of the large ensemble cast. Chase Peacock (Fakir) and Margaret Garofalo (Aya) move gracefully, sing beautifully and communicate their loyalty and concern for Mary with barely any lines between them. Stand out comedic performances by Elizabeth Mazur (Martha) and Dustin Rothbart (Dickon) are another highlight, as is Edward Fraim’s tortured and layered Uncle Archibald. Zachary Fewkes (Colin) is as talented an actor as he is a singer, and delivers an insightful performance of a rather demanding role.
It’s exciting to welcome a new company into the community. If Malone’s heartfelt and personal director’s thank you note in the show’s program is any indication, much of the hard work is already accomplished: community leaders have been enrolled; friendly expert advice has been warmly given and eagerly minded; and local talent has been mined for artists, staff and volunteers. Lake Forest Theatre is definitely heading in the right direction—it just needs to tend to a few things in its garden.
The Lake Forest Theatre presents “The Secret Garden” through July 2 at the John & Nancy Hughes Theatre, 400 East Illinois Road, Lake Forest. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. More information and tickets ($49) are available by calling 847-604-4975 or e-mailing [email protected] The theatre’s website is here.