OREM – I have been a fan of The Secret Garden since reading the book when I was younger.  I became a fan of the musical when I saw the touring company come to Salt Lake City years ago.  Since then I have been disappointed in community productions that failed to live up to that production.  Hale Center Theater Orem’s current production came very close to resetting that bar.

Show closes June 2, 2012.

The Secret Garden centers on Mary Lennox, a child orphaned in a cholera epidemic in India, who is sent to live with her nearest living relative, her uncle, a reclusive hunchback, Archibald Craven, in a remote estate in Yorkshire, Great Britain.  While there, she discovers a garden that has been locked away for ten years since her mother’s sister, Lilly, died as a result of a fall in the garden.  With the help of her new found friends, Martha and Dickon, she begins to care for the neglected garden and bring it back to life.  One night, in the midst of a violent thunderstorm, she comes across her cousin, Archibald’s and Lilly’s son, Colin, who has been bedridden since his birth and his mother’s death.  Everyone fears he will die soon, and that he will be a hunchback, like his father.  Contrary to the wishes of her other uncle, Dr. Neville Craven, Mary takes Colin with her to the garden where magic does indeed take place.

Hale Center Theater Orem is an inviting, intimate space with audience on three sides of the stage.  The scenic design by Bobby Swenson and scenic painting by Penny Jones was the first thing that struck me on entering the theater.  The upstage wall was covered by portraits and frames and was reminiscent of English country estates.  And the transition from the portraits into the garden for the final scene was both inventive and lovely.  The costume design and hair and make-up design by the team of Maryann Hill, Anne Swenson, Amanda Fitt, Janna Larsen and Melinda Wilks rivaled anything I’ve seen from fully professional theater companies.  The look of this show is nothing short of spectacular.

So what made this community theater production rival the Broadway touring production of my memory?  The performances in the lead roles.  Mabel Wheeler, making her theatrical debut as Mary Lennox, is phenomenal! She has a strong clear voice with the power and beauty to carry off this difficult score. She truly outshines the young actress from the touring company of my memory.  Christopher Higbee as Archibald Craven is also a standout.  He has a powerful tenor voice and conveys the anguish and pain of his character well. Korianne Orton Johnson as Lilly was nothing short of incredible.  She is lovely onstage and has a beautiful clear voice that soars in her many solos.  “How Could I Every Know” was one of the many highlights of the evening.  Keith McKay Evans as Dickon was also a standout.  He was one of the most likeable characters on stage and that is necessary for that part. For the small space, some of his facial expressions were a bit too large, but he was excellent in “Wick” and “Winter’s on the Wing.”  And his Yorkshire accent was impeccable, as was Xandra Wille’s as Martha.  She is adorable as the spunky chambermaid and has what are arguably the two real show stopping numbers in the show, “If I Had a Fine White Horse,” and “Hold On.”  There is a reason these two, in particular, are not double cast.  She has a beautiful voice and the power to pull off the songs, but it was at this point that the show suffered.  Not from a lack of talent, but in technical matters.

One of my biggest pet peeves is theaters that refuse to trust the talent they have onstage.  Both Hale Center Theaters suffer from this.  They have smaller, more intimate settings and use pre-recorded music. They seem to think that by amping up the volume, they are making the shows grander in scope.  By doing this they must also mike the actors so they can be heard over the volume of the music.  Especially in Orem, this is not needed. But in the case of Wille, who has a very powerful voice, they did her and the audience a huge disservice.  They cut her mike back at the high points of the song, no doubt to keep from overloading the sound system.  I was on the third row and heard her voice with no problem over what was coming through the sound system, but it still diminished the power of the number.  If they would dial back the level of the accompaniment (which was loud throughout the show), the voices could be heard more naturally and the real beauty of those extremely talented actors could be better appreciated.

There were a few other small disappointments with this show.  Jerry Elison performed Ben Weatherstaff without even the hint of a Yorkshire, or even British, accent.  This might not have been such a disappointment except that the other accents onstage were all done so well.  Greg Hansen as Neville Craven did not have quite the genuine emotional range and seemed to be playing the villain a bit too heavy handed for my taste.  He has a fine voice, but it was overpowered by Mr. Higbee in the duet “Lilly’s Eyes.”  There was also a minor issue, I felt, with some of the staging.  Archways were used throughout to stand in for the corridors and doorways in the manor house.  This was a great concept, but made those scenes on the very small stage seem overcrowded and destroyed any sightlines to what was happening onstage.

Notwithstanding these minor detractions, The Secret Garden was a lovely, moving and highly enjoyable evening.  It ranks as one of the best productions I’ve seen so far this year.

The Secret Garden plays nightly (except Sundays) at 7:30 PM and Saturdays at 3 PM through June 2at Hale Center Theater (225 West 400 North, Orem). Tickets are $12-$20. For more information, visit www.haletheater.org.

Photo: Pete Widtfeldt, CanIGetACopy.com