January 23, 2013

This beautiful 'Garden' shouldn't be kept a secret

I have lived in Charlotte 33 years, and I suppose I’ll never understand theater audiences.

I have lived in Charlotte 33 years, and I suppose I’ll never understand theater audiences.

Children’s Theatre of Charlotte opens “The Secret Garden,” one of the most magically intimate shows of the last 25 years, and gives us the most fully-realized musical on any local stage this season. And empty seats abounded Friday.

Are people waiting because the run is an unusually long four weekends? Do jittery ticket-buyers risk their cash only on titles with “Pan” and “Oz” and “Seuss” in them? Either way, they missed a full-scale (if discreetly trimmed) piece in two acts, complete with intermission, that grabs you early and holds on until the end.

From Mary Pingree’s cleverly designed, perpetually adaptable set – a house that comes apart physically, reflecting a household that’s breaking up psychologically – to the eerie sound design for the play’s ghosts, each element made an impact. The actors, at least, must have anticipated this total accomplishment: The cast includes CTC first-timers (Ryan Deal, Allison Rhinehardt) and choristers who have often been soloists here or elsewhere (Olivia Edge, Robert Jaeger).

Like the Francis Hodgson Burnett novel, this musical is a gentle ghost story. Young Mary Lennox (vivid Katlyn Gonzalez) moves from India to Yorkshire after her parents die. Distracted Uncle Archibald (Deal), still mourning wife Lily (Susan Roberts Knowlson), scarcely notices her. Both commune with their dead, though she also takes an interest in sickly cousin Colin (Sam Faulkner, who like Gonzalez makes us empathize even when Colin’s foul-tempered.)

With blithe Yorkshire natives Dickon and Martha (Marc Bastos and Caroline Bower) boosting their spirits, the young cousins long to restore Lily’s secret garden and the household’s peace. Only one person stands outside this potentially happy circle: Archibald’s doctor brother, Neville (Chaz Pofahl) who also loved Lily and is torn between helping Colin and letting him die. (Neville would then inherit.)

Lyricist-writer Martha Norman (“The Color Purple”) and composer Lucy Simon have written a sumptuous, mysterious score that should appeal to adults yet be intelligible to youngsters. (If you don’t know “The Simon Sisters Sing for Children,” her album done with sister Carly, you should.)

Director Michelle Long and choreographer Ron Chisholm keep the show in almost constant motion: The set, the actors, even a fog machine go a-swirling. That may not have delighted music director Drina Keen, who got a faceful of fog in the pit. Her band played on liltingly, nonetheless.

Yet the piece doesn’t feel frantic or rushed. The pace depicts the ebb and flow of emotions, the constant change in loyalty and relationships. And Long slows down as needed: The motionless duet “Lily’s Eyes,” sung by Archibald and Neville on either side of the house, is especially plaintive. (For once, stage microphones helped the show: These two and Roberts Knowlson could sing softly to full effect.)

So be advised: You have three more weekends to immerse yourself in rural Yorkshire and come out with a fuller heart. If you wait for the next “Aladdin” or “Mermaid,” you’ll have missed something fine.

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