by Jess Hoffman
Playhouse Stage Company has chosen a play with local roots for its second summer production. Based on a 1911 novel of the same name, The Secret Garden first premiered in 1989 in New York’s Capital District in a collaboration between Skidmore College and Capital Rep, according to an archived Daily Gazette article. Now, more than thirty years after its world premier, The Secret Garden is once again playing in the Capital Region at the Park Playhouse in Albany.
The Secret Garden is about a girl living in British India who is orphaned by a cholera outbreak and sent to live with her reclusive uncle in the English moors. At her uncle’s manor house, she discovers a walled-off garden that had belonged to her uncle’s widow. By way of this garden, the young protagonist makes friends with others living at the manor house and discovers the healing power of the garden (either supernatural or psychospiritual, depending on your own personal reading).
I must admit that the novel was a favorite of mine as a child, so I had some reservations about reviewing this play; I will freely admit that I can be something of a sourpuss when it comes to adaptations of my favorite books. But whether it was because it has been more than twenty years since I read The Secret Garden, or because the musical does an excellent job of capturing the tone and story of the book, or–as is most likely–a combination of the two, I thoroughly enjoyed the show!
The music of The Secret Garden is at times haunting, at times enchanting, and always compelling, just like the story that it tells. I was particularly fond of “A Fine White Horse” sung by the very talented Molly Kirby and “Winter’s on the Wing” sung by the equally talented Molly Kantrowitz (though that is probably more telling of my own musical preferences than of the qualities of the songs themselves). There is very little spoken dialogue, so the show moves rapidly and seamlessly from one number to the next.
The play comes alive with an incredible cast of theater students from the Playhouse Stage Academy. Playhouse Stage has found an extremely talented group of young people to make up the cast of this show. It would be far too cumbersome to praise each of them individually, so I must simply say that in the entire cast and chorus I found not one actor or actress wanting in their singing or their acting abilities. I must also praise a few standout cast members. The show begins with a brief opening from Selma Fabregas as Lily Craven; in that first moment I was immediately wowed. Throughout the whole show, I was always delighted when treated to Fabregas’s vocals. I was also thoroughly impressed by the singing and acting of the play’s young lead Sophie Geis. Geis plays ten-year-old Mary Lennox in a way that shows depth of character and a wide range of emotions, but does so in a way that does not make the character seem older than her years. Her petulant tantrum in act two when she meets the headmistress of a prestigious girls’ school is particularly amusing while providing insight into the character’s temperament and her love for her new home.
The Park Playhouse Stage lends itself to, and in some cases demands, dynamic moving set pieces; but I was still impressed by the multitude and magnitude of the set pieces in this show. Despite many large moving pieces, each set change is beautifully choreographed for a seamless transition. I was similarly impressed with the different lighting effects used to set not only the scene but the tone of the play. Lighting designer P. J. Davis deserves the highest praise for the way that the lighting shifted and set the mood in different scenes, especially the eerie effect created on the faces of the Dreamers during the cholera outbreak.
The only element of this show that is not quite up to par is the dance choreography. While enjoyable to watch, the choreography is occasionally repetitive and never particularly exciting. It is possible that choreographer AshleySimone Kirchner did not want to overburden the young students in this show with challenging choreography; but as I said, this cast is a group of exceptionally talented actors and actresses that I’m sure would have risen to the challenge.
So do not let the fact that this is a student show stop you from seeing The Secret Garden. This is an exceptional show that captures both the darkness and the magic of its source material, all with music that will have you humming your favorite refrains the whole way home. Playhouse Stage Company’s late summer production is not to be missed!
Playhouse Stage Company presents The Secret Garden by Marcia Norman and Lucy Simon, directed by Chuck Kraus, runs from August 3-19, 2023, at Park Playhouse in Albany’s Washington Park. Choreography & Musical Staging by AshleySimone Kirchner. Musical Direction by Brandon Jones. Original Orchestrations & Orchestral Direction by Brian Axford. Production Stage Manager: Sam Smith. Assistant Stage Manager: Andrew Wicklum. Technical Director: Stuart Chapin. Cast: Sophie Geis as Mary Lennox, Declan Forcier as Colin Craven, Josh Hoyt as Archibald Craven, Nat Holbrook as Dr. Neville Craven, Molly Kantrowitz as Dickon, Molly Kirby as Martha, Jacob Maxon as Ben Weatherstaff, Catherine Fitzgerald as Mrs. Medlock, Piper Doolen as Mrs. Winthrop, Julia Magin as Jane, Selma Fabregas as Lily Craven, Yuna Chung as Mary’s Ayah, Ava Papaleo as Rose Lennox, Kevin Begley as Captain Albert Lennox, Gabrielle Verchereau-Greco as Alice, Dominic Razzano as Lieutenant Wright, Christian Price-Burnett as Lieutenant Shaw, Connor Stephens as Major Holmes, Hayden Murray as Major Shelley, Vandy Benson as Claire Holmes, and Piper Doolen as Mrs. Shelley. Ensemble: Nathan Bouleris, Ryan DeSacia, Olivia Gilbert, AJ Halsey, Michael Jantson, Julia Magin, Jackson Majewski, Lindsey Maynard, Calla Meyer, Carissa Shanahan, and Sam Radez. Scenic design by Marc Christopher. Costume Design by Gina Kowalski. Lighting design by P. J. Davis. Sound Design by Tommy Rosati. Properties design by Lewis Bethune.
Performance dates are Tuesday-Saturday August 3-19, 2023, at 8PM. Free lawn seating available on a first-come, first served basis. Reserved seats are $25-35. Runs approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are available online by phone, or at the door for any performance. Visit https://playhousestagecompany.org/secret-garden or call 518-434-0776 for more information. Playhouse Stage Company does not offer advisories about subject matter, as sensitivities vary from person to person. If you have any questions about content, age-appropriateness, or stage effects (such as strobe lights or theatrical fog) that might have a bearing on patron comfort, please contact the box office at 518-434-0776.