The much-loved and often-performed musical, “The Secret Garden,” is on a national tour and is expected to be revived on Broadway on a yet undisclosed date.
Whenever that happens, though, it is hard to believe that any Great White Way production could surpass by much Civic Theatre of Allentown’s staging of the classic that runs through Oct. 22. To say the least, the Lehigh Valley production of “The Secret Garden” is a music, acting and technical triumph.
Director William Sanders, Civic artistic director, has assembled an exceptionally well-balanced ensemble of 22 superb singers-actors who do infinite justice to Marsha Norman’s Tony Award-winning book, based on the 1911 novel of the same name, and Lucy Simon’s operatic-style musical score.
It is nearly impossible to single out any one performer, but some are given better opportunities to shine than others by the very nature of the script itself and the characters they play.
Top billing, of course, goes to the 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Gabrielle Vecciarelli), who loses her parents and everyone she knows in Colonial India during a cholera epidemic. The talented Vecciarelli is delightful as the feisty, outspoken orphan who is shipped off to Yorkshire, England, where she turns her uncle’s life and household upside down. On opening night, Oct. 6, on which this review is based, she more than held her own with the adults, asserting herself without overdoing it; gaining our respect without losing her childlike appeal.
Mary’s hunchbacked uncle Archibald Craven (Will Morris), and his domineering brother Neville (Brian Rock), are powerful performers who sing with impressive vocal color and vibrancy. Morris as the tortured widower is heart-wrenching in his first act solo, “A Bit of Earth,” when he laments that he cannot give his niece what he thinks she needs. “She needs a home. The only thing she really needs, I cannot give. Instead, she asks, a bit of earth to make it live.”
When Morris and Rock duet in the explosive “Lily’s Eyes,” Rock as the brother declares his hidden love for Lily, and points out the resemblance of the niece to the dead woman. “She has her eyes. She has my Lily’s hazel eyes. Those eyes that loved my brother ... never me. Those eyes that never saw me, never knew I longed to hold her close, to live at last in Lily’s Eyes.” When the scene ended, the audience exploded in loud and sustained applause.
One of many things that makes Civic Theatre’s “Secret Garden” so moving and unforgettable is the strength and professionalism of the supporting players and those cast as the company. Each in their own turn has something witty or prophetic or illuminating to contribute to the performance. From chambermaid Martha (Elizabeth Stirba) to Mary’s Indian governess (SuAnn Chen), one of the six spirits that hover in the manor house, each does his-her part incredibly well.
Michael Lewis’ scenic design incorporates nearly 20 scene changes, which he manages skillfully through clever devices, such as hanging a huge painting of Victorian dancing couples behind the actors to establish a ballroom. To create the illusion of an English manor house, Lewis places lighted window panels at each end of the stage to mimic an exterior view of the building, and in some interior scenes, incorporates an over-sized model of the house into the back wall.
Will Morris’ double duty as costume and lighting designer is equally challenging and just as ably solved. The vast authentic wardrobe includes ball gowns, Victorian period costumes for men and women, servants’ outfits, British military uniforms, an Indian woman’s sari and man’s turban, and children’s clothing. Lighting effectively establishes a variety of moods, and is stunning at the end of Act I when Mary unlocks the door to the secret garden.
Music director Frank Anonia and the 15-member orchestra also deserve mention. Without them, there would be no musical.
At the end of the opening night performance of “The Secret Garden,” the audience rose to its feet to applaud as the cast completed its curtain call. The applause just as surely belongs to those behind the scenes who operate the light and sound boards, construct and paint the sets, sew the costumes, and do whatever else it takes to get the show on the “boards.”
Tickets: Civic Theater box office, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown; civictheatre.com; 610-432-8943