Encore Michigan

Review: Encore Musical Theatre’s ‘The Secret Garden’

Review November 17, 2019 Kym Reinstadler

DEXTER, Mich.–Little girls have loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden for more than 100 years.

And most today will love the 1991 stage adaptation of the Victorian children’s classic, being performed through Dec. 22 at The Encore Musical Theatre.

Performances of the child actors Lily Wright and Jojo Engelbert as the cantankerous Mary Lennox, and Caden Martel as the sickly Colin Craven – together with that of young adult Tyler J. Messinger in the role of nature-loving Dickon – steal this show.

But think of The Secret Garden as more of a story about kids than for kids. It’s a play about grieving losses and emerging to life again – and that is an adult theme.

Young Mary is orphaned in a cholera outbreak that strikes colonial India in 1906. She is sent to the English countryside to live with an uncle, who’s been mourning his wife’s death in childbirth for a decade. His grief is so intense that he can barely look at son Colin because he resembles his mother.

Mary is more than disagreeable. She is a brat. Yet she finds her better self – and a permanent home – when she brings peace of mind to her Uncle Archibald (Jay Montgomery), and promotes the health of cousin Colin, though her effort to restore a beloved garden planted by her Aunt Lily (Sarah B. Stevens). Uncle Archie had the garden walled off after Lily’s death.

To be sure, this multi-layered show has many signature dark Gothic touches: a dark and gloomy manor through which disembodied cries waft at night, waltzing ghosts, emotionally cold men, a dour housekeeper, a stern headmistress, and a young girl without parents or prospects.

Some elements of the story might not be easy for modern audiences to fathom, such as why one character’s minor physical deformity (a hunchback), and another’s lameness were the subjects of stupendous social stigma and sadness.

But the classic tale’s suggestion that time in nature has the power to restore troubled souls seems quite contemporary.

Music flows in this production from beginning to end. There is very little dialogue.

While composer Lucy Simon’s (pop star Carly Simon’s sister) score doesn’t really provide a blockbuster song that audiences will leave the theater humming, it is varied and interesting. There are English folk tunes, operatic ballads, Indian rhythms, and even a riff off the Mother Goose nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary.”

Encore music directors’ Tyler Driskill and R. MacKenzie Lewis’s small orchestra does a fine job with a challenging score.

Standout vocal performances are turned in with “A Girl in the Valley” and “How Could I Ever Know?” by Sarah B. Stevens as the omnipresent Lily. Jay Montgomery and David Moan (Neville Craven), deliver the male duel “Lily’s Eyes” with boiling intensity.

Messinger is wonderful in Dickon’s songs, “Winter’s on the Wing” and “Wick.” Dawn Purcell is superb as the cockney chambermaid Martha.

Lily Wright, a seventh grader at Slauson Middle School in Ann Arbor, was spot on in the Opening Night performance that I saw. The script requires her to have a terrible tantrum, and she nailed it.

This show has a chorus of ghosts called “dreamers” that includes Mary’s dead parents and caregivers. I like the full sound they provide. But it wasn’t always clear to me what they were doing as they were milling around on stage, aside from encouraging orphaned Mary on.

Set designer Jacqulin Stauder and prop master Anne Donovan have come up with a unique, functional and versatile set. Picture frames mounted on casters are wheeled around by the Dreamers to suggest different settings.

Dreamers also rotate a tri-level structure of the manor 180 degrees to reveal the sequestered Colin’s hidden room.

Lighting designer Nicklas Casella also deserves praise for creating the illusion of a lush and lavish garden in the final scene, where every haunted character finally shows signs of growth.

Director Cami Glauser also choreographed the show, which features English and Scottish folk dances as well as Eastern dance moves.

Week of 8/8/2022

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