We are often surprised to find the world is not what we first expected; brothers can betray us, wives can die unexpectedly, and the world can be a more beautiful place than how we’re accustomed to seeing it.
The MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players presented a captivating and surprisingly talented interpretation of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s The Secret Garden. The musical tells the classic story of Mary Lennox, a sullen and obstinate child, whose parents are unexpectedly killed by cholera in India. She is sent away to live with her hunchbacked Uncle Archibald in England where Misselthwaite Manor houses more than simply the inhabitants, but also the ghosts and memories of loved ones past. Here, Lennox learns to love again with the help of a pair of brother-sister servants and a forbidden garden that houses its own secrets and magic.
Abigail Dickson was perfectly cast as the ornery Mary Lennox, who shouts and stamps her foot with verve and purpose. I am always impressed with youth actors who can carry a show with talent and maturity, which Dickson did (almost) flawlessly. I didn’t like “The Girl I Mean to Be” because the solo never seemed to reach a climax and Dickson stayed mostly in her head voice instead of ever using her belt. Dickson’s voice is impressive for a performer so young but she needs to be careful, especially if she tries to push her voice beyond its natural range. Her trio with Shannon Rose McAuliffe’s Lily and Shawn Gelzleichter’s Archibald Craven was astounding; McAuliffe and Gelzleichter have amazingly polished voices with range and depth that was truly worth the price of admission. Even more surprising and impressive is that Dickson could hold her own part both in the music and onstage with these more experienced performers.
Equally magical was Alexandra Upton who played the spoiled Colin Craven, Archibald’s “sick” son. I was skeptical about a girl playing Colin, but Upton surpassed my expectations, especially for an actor and singer so young. Her scenes with Dickson sparkled with an energy and sense of purpose that I’ve rarely seen between youth performers. These two actresses understood not only their roles but how to be generous actors to their scene partners. Sam Lanthrop was also very charming as Dickon and his voice floated effortlessly, though I’d argue his range is more lyrical baritone than tenor. I loved Bridgette Hayes’s Martha because Hayes was remarkably consistent in her accent and I commend her for her strong dialect coaching for the other actors who also had consistent accents, despite many of the characters hailing from different parts of the British Isles. “Lily’s Eyes” gave me goosebumps and McAuliffe and Gelzleichter brought tears to my eyes with their chemistry and voices in “How Could I Ever Know”.
I was initially hesitant regarding the set designed by Ethan Tyndall and Garry Zacheiss (one of the stage directors) because the stage was much smaller than I’m used to seeing for a production of The Secret Garden. Zacheiss and his co-stage director Ky Lowenhaupt C did an outstanding job of moving characters seamlessly through scenes. The use of multiple entrances and exits helped the pacing of the show and enhanced the magic of the production. I didn’t love the garden scenes because I thought they lacked some inventiveness and enchantment, and I wish they had exploited the storm scenes more for their dynamic tension. Their staging for the ghosts, however, was their strongest choice. The scrims looked beautiful and, with Zacheiss and Paul Quimpy’s lighting design, allowed for many creative moments for the ghosts to drift in and out of reality. Though I missed seeing the ghosts throughout the show and I can’t say that I loved the voiceovers, I really liked their creativity in making the show work on such a small stage.
I also liked Nancy Ishihara’s and Kelsey Peterson’s costume designs, with the exception of Dr. Neville Craven’s suit (honestly, the brown pinstripes were hideous). This costuming choice only stood out because the rest of the cast was marvelously outfitted in beautiful and appropriate costumes, especially Lily and Archibald Craven. Another glitch was actors finding their light. There were numerous times that actors got stuck in half-lighting that annoyed me; I couldn’t tell if it was a spotlight problem or if actors couldn’t hit their marks.
Finally, I had one final annoyance and that was the curtain call. I was astounded and almost stopped clapping because Dickson as Mary Lennox was not given the final bow. While I understand that Archibald and Lily do have some difficult music to sing, despite Marsha Norman’s attempt to flesh out the adult characters in her book of The Secret Garden, the story is about Mary. Additionally, when you have that strong of a child performer, Dickson deserves the recognition of final bow. She carried the show brilliantly and we should be reminded of her hard work.
This show is pure magic and its production surprised me with its maturity, creativity, and execution. While I admit that the musical can feel like an operetta in some parts and may not be for all audiences, it’s family-friendly and offers beautiful music, talented acting, and an imaginative cast and crew.