LOGAN — I’ve been known to joke to friends that one can write a review of too many shows produced by Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre according to the following template:
- Exceptional musical experience due to the caliber of the singers and the orchestra.
- Subpar acting.
- There are a couple of regular performers that are exceptions to number two.
That said, I am happy to report that this year’s production of The Secret Garden subverted some of these expectations. Fortunately, #1 remains unchanged, and despite the absence of any of the aforementioned regulars, the acting is above average for the Ellen Eccles Theatre in July. I don’t know if this is because director Vanessa Ballam managed to wring more out of the cast or if UFOMT made a more concerted effort to hire singers with better acting skills this year. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful.
The Secret Garden, with music by Lucy Simon and book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, is based on the 1911 children’s classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett. In the musical, Mary Lennox, a pampered but neglected ten-year-old girl, is sent to live with her reclusive uncle, Archibald Craven, when her parents die of cholera in India. Not only does she find his house in Yorkshire, Misselthwaite Manor, to be gloomy, but she wonders if it is haunted after hearing what sounds like crying echoing through the halls at night.
She isn’t wrong about this, as ghosts from the characters’ pasts, like Mary’s parents and her aunt Lily (who died ten years previously), shadow and guide the events on the stage. Her uncle, described to Mary as a lonely hunchback still mourning his wife’s death, travels a great deal. This leaves his brother Neville in charge of the house, and Neville would prefer to see Mary sent away to boarding school. However, Mary proves to be a transformative presence at Misselthwaite, influencing both the people who live there as well as her aunt’s abandoned, “secret” garden.
The Secret Garden shows wisdom in programming for UFOMT. Perhaps it isn’t as squarely in their wheelhouse as Gilbert and Sullivan (which a company can pull off with a combination of elocution and camp if need be), but the score mostly lends itself well to operatic voices and requires no serious choreography. What it does demand is more dramatic range, and while one will still find the best acting in Logan around the corner at the Lyric, on the whole I was pleasantly surprised.
First and foremost, Claire Francis provides the show’s core with an unaffected portrayal of Mary that is beautifully sung and refreshingly honest. Francis almost brought me to tears more than once. Those familiar with the 1991 Broadway cast recording will notice that her solo, “The Girl I Mean to Be,” has been moved from the beginning of the second act to halfway through the first, after “Show Me the Key” and before “Winter’s on the Wing.” Moreover, instead of a soliloquy/fantasy sequence, she now sings it to another character.
This is one of the alterations made for the moderately retooled 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company production in London’s West End. However, that incarnation also featured additional updates to the book, score, and orchestrations, and aside from this rearrangement of the song order, everything else about UFOMT’s production is unquestionably the Broadway version. I don’t know if this difference is now part of the post-Broadway script that Samuel French licenses or if Ballam implemented this change herself. I do understand how it contributes to Mary’s character arc, furnishing motivation for her interest in Lily’s garden, but I’m not sure it works unless additional refinements are made. For one thing, it means the audience doesn’t see Mary for some time at the beginning of the second act, making it easy to forget about her. More crucially, though, it strikes me as too early a point for Mary to confide so much in anyone else.
The gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, comments on how alike he and Mary are, so it is fitting that Stephanos Tsirakoglou’s performance should also make a strong impression. Though he is not given much of an opportunity to show off his fine singing voice, Tsirakoglou’s effortless, natural line readings elevate every scene he appears in. As Lily, Emily Dyer Reed’s interactions with Brigham Allen (playing Lily’s son Colin), and Gabriel Preisser (as Archibald) are as genuine as they are exquisitely sung. Allen shows off a lovely boy soprano, and Mackenzie Rogers brings an innate likability to the maid Martha. While I appreciate Joe Ogren’s energy as Martha’s brother Dickon, I’m afraid that, compared with everyone else, he comes off a little over the top.
There is hardly any evidence of crooked shoulders in Preisser’s Archibald Craven, who is visited by a limp less often than by the ghost of his wife. When singing at full volume, his tone and range are striking, but he struggles to find his head voice in (what should be) quieter moments. The resulting lack of contours makes his performance less interesting than it could have been. On the other hand, when Preisser joins forces in climactic duets with Lily or Neville (the latter played by Jóhann Schram Reed), the results are thrilling.
The fact that these formidable singers can count on the support of such a fine orchestra, conducted by Karen Keltner, only compounds the effect. In addition, I would like to call particular attention to Carl J. Whitaker’s terrific sound design. I’ve criticized the Ellen Eccles in the past because it typically sounds more cavernous than it is (especially during dialogue), but this time everything was sharp and clear.
Unfortunately, the look of this production does not live up to its sound. Although complex visual effects are not necessary, it is important to have a visual style that reveals an overall design concept. For example, the novel dates Misselthwaite to the early 1300s, yet the pair of mismatched and offset columns underneath a suspended pediment that are intended to represent it are more believable as early 18th-century Palladian than 14th-century Decorated Gothic. That by itself wouldn’t be a problem as long as it felt like a deliberate choice, but the design for Misselthwaite doesn’t match anything else. Rather, Jack Shouse’s set appears to have been assembled from whatever spare pieces could be found in UFOMT’s storage unit. The result is not just a hodgepodge, but a bland set that makes one wonder why so many ghosts would waste their talents in a place with so little atmosphere.
Regardless, between the musical quality audiences expect from UFOMT and the better than average acting, I do recommend this production of The Secret Garden. For anyone who loves the score—and I am unabashedly one of those people—it is worth overlooking the set. If you come in search of a stirring rendition of “Lily’s Eyes” or “How Could I Ever Know,” you will not go away disappointed.
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