2012-05-09 / Features

APAC’s The Secret Garden Charms And Delights

BY GEORGINA YOUNG-ELLIS


Astoria Performing Arts Center’s (APAC) production of The Secret Garden. Astoria Performing Arts Center’s (APAC) production of The Secret Garden. Astoria Performing Arts Center’s (APAC) production of The Secret Garden is a charmed and charming journey from darkness to light. Many people are familiar with the story; it is a popular book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and has been made into a film more than once. Perhaps only theater buffs know it but it was a musical on Broadway in the early 90s, adapted by Marsha Norman, with music by Lucy Simon. APAC’s Artistic Director Tom Wojtunik has now brought his own vision of the musical to Astoria audiences, and an inspired vision it is. Aided by master technicians Michael P. Kramer (sets), Ryan J. Moller (costumes), Dan Jobbins (lights), Ashley Cavadas (props), and Colin Whitely (sound), plus the brilliant work of Musical Director Jeffrey Campos, Musical Stager Christine O’Grady, Technical Director Elizabeth J. Nosewicz, and a quintet of outstanding musicians, every detail of Wojtunik’s production delights.

The haunting story begins with a cholera outbreak in India, leaving young Mary Lennox an orphan. She is sent to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven, in his mansion on the English moors, where both her ghost and his roam the halls. While her indomitable spirit looks for the good in the situation, his cannot escape the tragedy of his past. One of my favorite things about the production is something Wojtunik referred to in a previous interview as “the ghost chorus”. It is made up of Mary’s departed father and mother, their friends and servants, as well as her Aunt Lily, Archibald’s deceased wife. They are an integral part of the show, weaving throughout a context for the suffering and/or inspiration of the living, as well as providing visual and musical fascination for the audience. Lily, played by Jennifer Evans, a gifted singer with a soaring soprano voice, is as much a main character as any of those alive. Her loving spirit-presence seems to soothe all those who come in contact with her.

Other attention-grabbers are Jaimie Kelton, who plays Martha the chambermaid, and Michael Jennings Mahoney, who plays her brother, Dickon. Both actors master the Yorkshire accents necessary for the parts (really a dialect), and the buoyant humor of their characters often lift the mood both onstage and off. Uncle Archibald, played by Patrick Porter, and his brother Neville, played by Benjamin McHugh, personify gothic melodrama. When their powerful voices join in duet, the beautiful sound fills the space to the rafters. The real stars of the show are the two child leads, Hannah Lewis, who plays Mary, and Sam Poon, who plays Colin. Both have such exceptional singing voices that if either aspires to Broadway dreams, I have to think they’re not far from making those dreams a reality.

The only thing that distracted me from being fully immersed in the theatrical experience was that the acting seemed forced or stilted at times (though that may have been the result of the old-fashioned dialogue), and the fact that the British accents seemed to slip every now and then. There was also this feeling of surprise that I experienced when Archibald Craven is driven as far as near-suicide by the death of his wife 10 years past. Then, I remembered Wojtunik had mentioned to me that the play was really about depression. I began to consider that 100 years ago, when the novel was written, depression wasn’t understood in the way it is now; people didn’t have grief counseling. Death occurred more frequently to people at a younger age, and especially in the case of someone as isolated as Archibald, out there on the moor with the “wuthering” winds, there wasn’t a community to support him through his loss. I also remembered how Wojtunik had mentioned that the author of The Secret Garden was an early believer in the power of positive thinking, which was particularly evident toward the end of the play, as hope and spring blooms. A show-stopping number accompanies this positive energy at this point with a song called, “Come Spirit, Come Charm”. The Yorkshire natives, Martha and Dickon, join with Mary in Hindu, Celtic-Pagan, and Christian prayer to conjure a “charm” from the earth to help heal Colin. Soon the “ghost chorus” joins them in an incredible force of song and dance, bringing forth a kind of joyous resurrection.

All in all, the musical has great momentum from beginning to end, aided by the evocative lighting and miraculous set that work together toward a fantastic surprise. People in the audience around me wept for joy as the piece culminated, and I left feeling truly uplifted. This is a terrific show for kids who are around 10 or older, one to enjoy with the family, or even for a date night. It runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until May 19 with 8 p.m. performances anda2p.m.matineeaddedon Saturdays. Tickets are $18 and $12 for seniors and students. Visit www.APACNY.org for more information.

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