12/18/2022 THE SECRET GARDEN Anderson Concert Series / Atlanta Lyric Theatre
THE UNBEARABLE HEAVINESS OF GRIEF
Francis Hodgson Burnett was the Dickens of Dark Children's Literature. Despite an output of over thirty books between 1877 and 1912, she is remembered primarily for her three most popular books (Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden), all of which feature orphans in dire circumstance, stumbling towards happy endings through pluck, virtue, and not a little old-fashioned luck.
The Secret Garden, in particular, has left an extraordinary trail of adaptations, revisions, filmed versions (over 15 according to IMDB) and musicalizations. Its combination of loss, salvation, and innocence can be especially appealing to all ages.
In the summer of 2015, Serenbe Theatre did a very memorable kid-friendly outdoor production, staged in an actual garden. It generated a column from me that provided more than a little grist for my self-plagiarism mill.
Perhaps my favorite adaptation is the 1991 Broadway Musical (Book and Lyrics by Marsha Norman, Music by Lucy Simon). An exquisitely rhapsodic experience for me, this show is moving and memorable, even after these many years, even after seeing these many productions, even after hearing the original cast recording these many dozens of times.
So, I was happy to see that the Jennie T. Anderson Concert Series chose to team up with Atlanta Lyric Theatre to stage a too-short two-performance run. I was even more happy to see that they chose the talented Heidi McKerley to direct.
For those who may not know the story, Mary Lennox is a child of privilege, living in India, orphaned by a cholera epidemic. She is sent to live with her mother's sister's widower, a sad lost cripple living in a cold and empty (well, ghost-filled) Yorkshire estate. There are secrets in the house and grounds, including an enticing garden, walled-up, its door overgrown, its key long lost. Throughout a cold early spring, Mary must endure the cultural shock that comes with being uprooted from a hot and sunny India, filled with servants and love and attention, and thrown into a cold and heartless Yorkshire, where there is only the howling winds on the moor (the “wuthering” if you didn’t know). But it doesn’t take long for her to learn about the garden and household, until she finds her way into the affections of the staff, into the rhythms of the land, into the secret garden of her late Aunt Lily. As spring brings bloom to the neglected garden, so too does it bring color and warmth to the neglected and gray hearts of the household.
But the emotional core of this piece is Mary’s Uncle Archibald, bent by ten years of grief, hiding from even the hint of a thaw, blinded to his brother’s manipulations, yet filled to overflowing with suppressed love for his sadly always-ill son, Colin. In the role, Jeff McKerley plumbs depths of feeling rarely seen in a musical, wears his grief like a burdensome knapsack overshadowing his very real but equally metaphorical humpback. When he “reads” to his son in “Race You to the Top of the Morning,” his love becomes a fierce dragon, a heart-rending roar that he belts to the rafters, even as he flees the cost of that love, flees the torture that remaining in this house of illness and death have become for him.
Janine Ayn’s clear haunting soprano is all that is needed to bring Lily’s ghost to heart-breaking life. It’s not difficult to understand how Archibald’s grief has managed to survive for ten years, when Ms. Ayn is constantly there, constantly seen, constantly pouring out her own affection and loss. When she apologizes for dying in the eleven o’clock number (“How Can I Ever Know?”), I am never NOT moved to tears, no matter how many productions I see, no matter how many times I’ve heard the song. Ms. Ayn makes it fresh and new and profoundly heartbreaking.
If this sounds dark and gloomy, it is. Yet, the cheerfulness of Mary’s maid Martha (Kristine Reese), custodians of the grounds and gardens Dickon and Ben (Russell Scott and Robert Wayne), and the Mary of Kayla Furie are all like a beacon of imminent summer, a swath of joy that provides perfect musical and emotional counterpoint to the grief and loss that have totally consumed Archibald and Lily. This is a large cast and ensemble. (25 strong) with an equally full-sounding 16-piece orchestra, skillfully led by Holt McCarley with assistance from Imani Quiñones), all of whom are instrumental in bringing the score to soul-shaking splendor. The nice character work from old pros like Daniel Burns (Neville) and Kathleen MacManus (Mrs. Medlock) as well as from newer faces like Max Walls (Colin), Galbannoo Setayesh (Ayah) and Kendra Johnson (Rose) are also commendable.
Heidi McKerley has made some very effective staging choices, most notably keeping Lily on a tall rolling staircase so she can look over those she has left behind. Evocative projections (credited to Mark Pleasant) set the many scenes and keep the action flowing smoothly and even a little elegantly. And “walks through the maze” are dazzlingly choreographed, just as the large cast and orchestra never look over-crowded and awkwardly in each other’s way. Cole Spivia’s costumes are also commendable and simply gorgeous,
The Secret Garden was (and always will be) a favorite of mine. Its wide range of emotional notes, its sharply drawn characters, and especially its rapturously intoxicating score make it a pleasure to return to again and again. It is, itself, a garden that thaws the icy fingers of even a Georgia December, displaying a wide variety of emotional blooms whose scents combine in perfect harmony. And this concert version is the perfect platform for it, losing nothing in its simplifications, gaining everything with its focus on character and performance and song.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #SecretGarden #JennieTAndersonConcerts #AtlantaLyricTheatre #WhenAPlayIsWick)