Theatre Raleigh’s flair for staging intimate musicals has set the bar high with acclaimed productions of “Light in the Piazza,” “Parade” and “Violet.” That bar has now been moved to an unprecedented height with its dazzling presentation of “The Secret Garden.”
The 1991 Broadway musical, based on the beloved children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is popular with theaters and audiences. It’s a rare year without a local production, but it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying staging than Theatre Raleigh’s.
It starts with the technical aspects. Michael McClain’s pen-and-ink floral drawings frame three movable arches that become doorways, garden structures and railway stations. Cast members roll beds, desks and flower carts on and off effortlessly in ever-flowing scene changes. LeGrande Smith’s gorgeous all-white costumes for orphaned Mary Lennox’s family in India and appropriately somber garb for Mary’s new family in England set the early 20th century period perfectly. Joanna Li’s musical direction finds all the score’s charm and vigor.
But it’s Christina Munich’s lighting that is almost the star of the show. Its range of moods and variety of hues give the production a gem-like brilliance. Within all the beautiful visuals, director Tim Seib and choreographer Sherry Lee Allen make the staging a single ribbon of story and song, floating between present and past.
Sixth-grader Skyla Woodard confidently projects endearing character as Mary, her singing clear, her emotions believable. She’s a particularly accomplished dancer, delightful in her gestures and undulations as she conjures ancient Indian spirits to help her garden grow.
Michal Halling’s brooding Archibald, Mary’s uncle, creates great sympathy for the grieving widower. Halling’s moving solos about his bedridden son, Colin, and his deceased wife, Lily, culminate in the show’s best number, “Lily’s Eyes,” sung in duet with DJ Canaday’s stern Neville, Archibald’s brother and unsuspected rival. Jenny Latimer’s beautifully vocalized Lily appears as a ghost to Archibald and Colin, played by seventh-grader Keegan Story, who gets laughs arguing with Mary and brings tears in his transformation and recovery.
Nick Petrelli’s Dickon, a young worker on Archibald’s estate, bursts with enthusiastic swagger and sports a bright singing voice. Mallory Hawks’ spunky chambermaid Martha is professionally assured in her singing and Yorkshire accent. David Bartlett’s kindly gardener Ben and Bonnie Webster’s gruff housekeeper Mrs. Medlock round out the household.
The production is even more impressive because the material is problematic. Scriptwriter Marsha Norman and composer Lucy Simon attempted to broaden the story’s appeal by expanding the adult roles with darker plot elements. They also added ghosts of Mary’s family who appear in almost every scene, Greek chorus-like. The conceit is clever but often confuses and complicates the storyline. Still, Carly Prentis Jones, Taylor Kraft, Sean McCracken, Tristan Parks, Lisette Glodowski, Austeene Grey, Derek Robinson and Jacob Barton deserve credit for their ghostly precision wafting in and out, singing commentary and moving scenery.
Nothing, however, should prevent anyone from seeing this first-rate production, another proof of Theatre Raleigh’s knowing way with staging musicals.
What: “The Secret Garden,” presented by Theatre Raleigh
Where: Fletcher Opera Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East South Street, Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 18-20; 2 p.m. Aug. 19-20
Info: 919-832-9997 or www.theatreraleigh.com