EPHRAIM — The Secret Garden, a Musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, adapted from the beloved children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first premiered on Broadway in 1991 and has now made its way to the Snow College Department of Theatre in Ephraim, Utah. Directed by Jenn Chandler, the story follows Mary Lennox, played by Savannah Mack, who has lost her parents and everyone she has known to cholera in India in 1901, and is sent to live with her uncle Archibald, played by Nate Bruse, in an old mansion in the moors of England. The home is full of secrets, ghosts, and sadness. Mary soon discovers an ill cousin, Collin, played by Colter Tidlund, an uncle whose motives are not clear played by Dylan Foster, and many other servants, sidekicks, and ghosts that haunt the characters.Having first discovered the music of the Secret Garden as a young seventh grader, I was quite thrilled to make the drive to Sanpete County to see what Snow College would do with the story. Snow has focused on their theatre department and school of music over the years, which was evident when walking into the auditorium and hearing not canned music, but a live orchestra warming up. The playbill listed a 27-piece orchestra. This is large, even for Broadway stages. Recently the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd received acclaim for having a 26 piece orchestra.  As the overture swelled, and these college musicians began their impeccable playing, it was clear the audience was in for a treat. This type of sound cannot be replicated on tracks, and it is rare to hear it in such beauty. At the end of the show, several of the audience members including myself, walked up to the pit and stood as the orchestra played the exit music and then applauded the instrumentalists one final time. Music director Brian Stucki and director Jenn Chandler clearly understand what live music can bring to a show.

Photo credits: Sara Winkler

After the music, the next technical element of excellence in this production was the costume design by Jess Wallace. Much of this show is done in flashbacks, dreams, and paranormal encounters. I have seen this interpretated in various fashions, however not in such beauty as the vision of Wallace and Chandler. In particular I enjoyed the ball gowns of the cast, most especially that of Lily, played by Shayla Florence. Because the story revolves around Lily’s garden and the difficulties that the people living have faced because of her death, the symbolism of her dresses being full of floral life was touching. This costuming choice amplified Florence’s acting prowess, where she was able to balance a characterization that showed a love and zest for life and a spirit that had departed too soon, therefore making it hard for people to let go. Her angelic voice added to this characterization, with her smooth vocals echoing each time she performed. The music that Lily performs reaches into the highest levels of the female register, and Florence did not shy away from these notes, which added a great deal of flavor to her character as well.

One of the most beautiful elements of the set by Trent Bean was adding empty picture frames where the spirit characters like Lily would stand in them, reminding the audience that they were in fact shadows of the past. This choice was most poignant in the song “Lily’s Eyes”,  where Florence stood at the top of the set prominent in a picture frame while Bruse as Archibald and Hunter as Dr. Craven both sang a beautiful duet about love and loss. Bruse as Archibald further excelled in his role when he sang the “Round Shouldered Man” to his sleeping son, and finally near the end when he and Florence sang the combination of Where in the World” and How Could I Ever Know”. At one point early in the show, Bruse is asked by Mack as Mary if all people who die become ghosts, and he replies they are only ghosts if someone is holding on to them. The chemistry between Florence and Bruce along with the impeccable staging truly brought out that difficulty of letting go when someone struggles with a loss, and the joy that comes when finding something beautiful and important to hold on to that brings you back to reality.

Characters Martha, played by Ruby Bagley, and Dickon, played by Parker Smith, are always a treat in this show. Bagley and Smith were absolutely up to the task. Songs like Wick” and “Winter’s on the Wing” by Smith were crowd pleasers, and the backing of the orchestra only made that more essential. Bagley sang one of the most iconic songs of the show, Hold On”, to great fan fare even though it was pretty evident that she had a cold, showing that the educators at Snow are working with their students to sing appropriately and effectively.

Mack as Mary and Tidlund as Colin were younger actors from the community, which was a nice touch showing the ability of the college to build a bridge to community arts and arts education. If this production were to receive any criticism, it would be that these younger players did not have the strength of their older counterparts, however I saw this more as a wonderful master class that they got to participate in, where their skills could be honed in by working with directors, designers, and actors actively studying and perfecting their crafts. This in no way is saying that either were not entertaining, just that the bar of Snow College Theatre students has shown itself to be quite high.

Chandler in her directors note stated that she hoped that we all discover and hold on to what is precious in our lives now. As a patron of the arts, that is one of the most beautiful things about arts education, is that being able to attend and document events such as this continues to be what is precious to me.

The Secret Garden Plays various evenings February 23-March 2, 2024 at the Kim Christison Theatre on the Snow College Campus, 150 College Ave, Ephraim, Utah 84627. Tickets are $4-12.  Form more information see https://snow.edu/academics/fineart/