By Kristin Forbis
Because of my lasting love for that iconic children’s book, I was thrilled when Vernal Theatre: LIVE announced that their final Season 2 production would be The Secret Garden. I still remember the day I purchased my copy of The Secret Garden from a cute shop just hours before boarding a plane. The book was to be my travel companion and a sweet indulgence considering how little I had come to read for pleasure during those, my college years.
For all the shows I have seen on stage, this was my first time seeing The Secret Garden but I went into it having faith that Frances Hodgson Burnett’s magical children’s novel had been given justice. While the stage production by Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music) takes some liberties by adding characters and expanding some of the plot, the spirit of the story remains as does the heart of its message. Norman and Simon’s musical premiered on Broadway in 1991 and ran for over 700 performances to great acclaim.
The Secret Garden tells the story of 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Sarah Nielson), a spoiled and sour English girl born in India to wealthy parents. Her mother, Rose Lennox (Danicia Christensen), is detached as a mother and as self-centered as she is beautiful. Her father, Captain Albert Lennox (Daniel Jackson), though not highly involved, is understood to love his daughter and give her moments of affection. The play begins on a night as Mary goes to bed while her parents are hosting a party. She wakes up an orphan as the only living person found in the home, all others fallen victim of cholera. Mary is sent to England to live with her Uncle Archibald (Kenzy Anderson), whom she has never met, at the isolated and seemingly haunted Misselthwaite Manor. Uncle Archibald is brooding and miserable, nursing a decade old wound having lost his wife Lily (Rachel Wells) to an accident that spurred her premature labor of their son Colin (Parker Harrison). Now 10 years later, Colin remains bedridden and hidden away from Mary, believed by his uncle Dr. Neville Craven (Joel Benedicto) and the entire estate to be deathly ill and destined to develop a lump on his back like his father. Due to Archibald’s depressed and grieving state, his brother, Dr. Craven, manages his estate, is doctor to his ill nephew, and has grown weary of the responsibility and injustice of all his brother has had in life. Mary’s story takes off as she makes friends with the gardener Ben Weatherstaff (Andrew Bentley), the housekeeper Martha (Korinne Peacock), and Martha’s little brother Dickon (Cayden Wells). Getting fresh air and playing in the dirt, literally for the first time, has a transforming effect on Mary who goes about determined to uncover secrets. Why is her Aunt Lily’s garden locked up and forbidden and who is it she hears crying in the night? This is the story of Mary, a once bratty and entitled girl, who grows into a heroic and spirited young lady that helps transform the entire household from a state closer to death to one of new life and healing relationships.
Nielson encompasses the role of Mary, portraying the emotional transformation convincingly with impressive vocals and just simply not missing a beat. I thought her most memorable vocal moments were during “The Girl I Mean to Be” and “Come Spirit, Come Charm.” I also loved her ‘oh no you didn’t!’ attitude and subsequent tantrum when Mrs. Winthrop (Andrea Wardle) shows up to take her to boarding school. While Wardle’s brilliant display of vicious spinster disciplinarian had the audience shuddering, it wasn’t enough to tame Nielson who rose to the challenge of winning that war and impressing at least me. I also had the chance to see Emma Curtis as the Understudy for Mary Lennox and enjoyed her playful yet intense portrayal of the character and I won’t soon forget her pretty voice.
Of course, the other lead characters deserve as much attention as I just paid Nielson and I am inclined to give it some press in this review. I cannot conclude without bringing attention to the charged heartache between Anderson and Wells as Archibald and Lily, most memorably portrayed in “How Could I Ever Know.” The depth of grief Anderson delivers is felt in the way he moves onstage, the pained expressions he wears, and through his singing, that while beautiful still delivers his character’s heart-wrenching affliction for all to experience. Wells likewise does Lily’s character justice in her beauty, sincere sweetness, and memorable soprano that lovingly invites her husband and son to ‘Come to my garden.’ Benedicto as Dr. Craven also deserves a clear commendation for stunning vocals and the ability to bring enough emotional depth to an unlikeable character that an audience member can still recognize his hardship and how he may have come to such a low place. Finally, as far as highlighting leads, Peacock’s Martha provides the dose of sunshine desperately needed early in the play and near the end sings “Hold On” as a beautiful ballad appropriate for a play full of its share of pain and conflict.
The boys in the play, Wells and Harrison, play off Nielson well. Wells seems right at home as Dickon, speaking in accent and metaphors about the earth and its seasons. “Winter’s on the Wing” and “Wick” were great numbers he absolutely owns. As far as Harrison, seeing Colin go from a defeated child waiting for the worst to the broad smiling boy full of hope in the final scene filled my mother heart with emotion. Finally, I need to try and portray just how amazing the 17-person Dreamer Ensemble is in this production. Jackson and Christensen, as Mary’s parents, stand out in several musical numbers; Jackson in “A Bit of Earth” (reprise) and Christensen in “Quartet.” Nearly half of the Dreamer Ensemble has played leads in other productions and the vocal power they bring to this show is perhaps my favorite part of the experience. The mystical element of their presence is such a visually intriguing way to add to this story, whether you see them as memories, ghosts, or angels. It’s really up to the interpretation of each audience member.
Behind this stunning show is an impressive production team. Director/Choreographer Nashelle Jackson has put together a hauntingly beautiful telling of Mary’s story. Music Directors Jen Curtis and Karilynn Pearson clearly performed their job of preparing each performer vocally while lights (Dora Watkins), sound (Curtis), stage management (McKenzie Johnstun), and costumes (Claire Owens, Rachel Smuin) make for a superior community theatre experience.
If you’ve yet to see a show at Vernal Theatre: LIVE be advised that street parking is limited but parking is available in the back and on the west side of South Vernal Avenue. The theatre served as Vernal’s downtown cinema from 1947 to 2014. Vernal Theatre: LIVE opened its doors for community theatre in 2016 after fundraising and renovating the building. It maintains the old theatre’s charm and seats an audience of 250 guests for a well-balanced community theatre experience.
Making arrangements to see The Secret Garden at Vernal Theatre: LIVE will be worth your effort. Don’t let a crowded schedule get in your way. This is appropriate for children, especially those who love books and wonderful stories. The Secret Garden in Vernal is magical. Come and enjoy.
Vernal Theatre: LIVE presents The Secret Garden by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon
Vernal Theatre, 40 East Main Street, Vernal, UT 84078
April 16, 19-21 7:00 PM
Vernal Theater Facebook Page
The Secret Garden Facebook Event