Saturday, May 21, 2011

Theater review: Young thespian's strong debut makes 'Secret Garden' worth cultivating

By Hap Erstein

More interested in spiritual rebirth than the usual romance that fuels musicals,‭ ‬with a score more attuned to British folk melodies than Tin Pan Alley hits,‭ ‬you can understand why‭ ‬1991‭’‬s underrated‭ ‬The Secret Garden is rarely revived these days.

And then there is the casting challenge of its main character,‭ ‬12-year-old Mary Lennox,‭ ‬the suddenly orphaned tot saddled with justifiable melancholy and a number of difficult,‭ ‬rangy songs.

The former did not faze Caldwell Theatre artistic director Clive Cholerton,‭ ‬who had already prepared its audiences for the unconventional by leading off the Boca Raton company’s Broadway Concert Series with several shows by Stephen Sondheim.‭ ‬As to the latter,‭ ‬he simply lucked out,‭ ‬when Melissa Minyard,‭ ‬the series‭’ ‬perennial leading lady,‭ ‬suggested that her daughter Catherine could handle the role.

Boy,‭ ‬can she,‭ ‬as the audience at Friday’s opening performance of an all-too-brief weekend run quickly realized.‭ ‬The remarkably poised youngster,‭ ‬refreshingly absent of professional training mannerisms yet possessing an assured vocal delivery style,‭ ‬helped this become one of the most accomplished concerts in the series‭’ ‬brief history.‭

The show,‭ ‬based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s enduring,‭ ‬metaphor and life lesson-laden children’s novel from‭ ‬1911,‭ ‬was created by an all-female creative team largely outside the Broadway mainstream.‭ ‬Composer Lucy Simon cobbled her first theater score from folk and pop idioms,‭ ‬with touches of the exotic sounds of India,‭ ‬married to simple,‭ ‬unforced poetry by Marsha Norman in her debut as a lyricist.

It is the saga of Mary Lennox,‭ ‬whose parents and friends die abruptly in a cholera epidemic.‭ ‬So she is shipped off to live with her Uncle Archie,‭ ‬a hunchback hermit having his own problems adjusting to the death of his wife in childbirth.‭ ‬What’s worse,‭ ‬little Mary reminds Archie of his dead wife,‭ ‬Lily‭ (‬played by the elder Minyard,‭ ‬who mostly wafts through the proceedings as a ghostly apparition‭)‬.

If the show’s original Broadway staging had a failing,‭ ‬it was that it was unnecessarily cluttered with ghost figures.‭ ‬Cholerton’s music stands-and-microphones concert cuts back on the spectral images,‭ ‬erring on the side of clarity.

Whether or not he chose‭ ‬The Secret Garden to allow Wayne LeGette a third opportunity to take on a role closely associated with Mandy Patinkin,‭ ‬the area performer is a standout as Archibald Craven,‭ ‬with several opportunities to apply his sweet quirky upper register sound.‭ ‬Shane Tanner came off a tad too much like‭ ‬The Addams‭’ ‬Family’s Lurch for my taste as Archie’s evil brother,‭ ‬but he came on strong in the male-male duet with LeGette,‭ ‬In Lily’s Eyes,‭ ‬arguably the score’s best number.

Other standouts in the‭ ‬17-member cast include Amy Miller Brennan as spunky chambermaid Martha and John Debkowski as her brother Dickon,‭ ‬the charismatic gardener with a rock star manner.

Caryl Ginsburg Fantel serves as music director and sole accompanist on keyboard,‭ ‬handling both with uncanny ease.‭ ‬Sean Lawson again supplies the scene-and-tone-setting photographic projections,‭ ‬moody black-and-white shots until the title garden is eventually revealed in Technicolor.‭

The Caldwell has had a very good,‭ ‬comeback season,‭ ‬extended now to include another winning Broadway concert.

THE SECRET GARDEN,‭ ‬Caldwell Theatre Company,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬May‭ ‬22.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$25-$35.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬241-7432.‭

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