CENTERVILLE — Director Jim Christian is a name that has become a standard in the Utah theater community for over three decades. In my time as a theater patron Christian’s work has come to be a favorite of mine. However, The Secret Garden is not one of my favorite musicals. Sitting down on Friday night I found myself bracing for what I was about to watch. I was in conflict with myself. One of my least favorite shows done by a favorite director. How would this play out?
The Secret Garden, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, follows Mary Lennox (played by Emma Kate Leishman). Orphaned after a cholera outbreak in the British Raj where her father’s regimen is stationed she is shipped away from India, the only home Mary has ever known, to England. She arrives at her Uncle Archibald Craven’s manor house only to be ignored by both he and his brother, Dr. Neville Craven. Both are being haunted by figures of their past as well as Mary. The spirits of the house are trying to tell them that something is wrong. The servants take Mary under wing and help guide her to the mystery behind the house in hopes of confronting the secrets that loom over the house.
As the show opened I was captured by the starkly dressed stage. There were no large elaborate sets or backdrops. Only small mobile pieces were constructed to create the impressions of the locations. Points to set designers Scott VanDyke and Eric Oliphant for creating elegant and efficiently movable designs that didn’t hinder the pacing of the show with slow scene changes.
The true dressing of the stage came in the costumes and the lighting. Costume designer Sandy Hunsaker and her crew are to be commended for their work because the cast looked fantastic. And it was obvious—judging by the way some cast members moved in them—that they were enjoying their costumes as much as I was. The design and color of the costumes played benefit to Dave Larsen’s lighting design. With well planned lighting, Larsen was able to transform elegant evening gowns to ethereal garb, creating a stark separation between the living and the dead. The only downfall to the lighting was how constricting it was to certain cast members’ performances. While in part due to blocking and direction, the static lighting used in solo scenes created a cage for the performers. For example, during the song “Lily’s Eyes” the spotlights confined Dan Frederickson, playing Dr. Craven, and Brett Johnson, who played Archibald Craven. Both were restricted to a single spot on the stage attempting to detail their inner conflict. Emotionally, the lyrics that Marsha Norman wrote for the song have the potential to create a very powerful scene where both brothers profess a love for the deceased Lily, who only loved one of them. While the vocals were fairly solid, the concert-like feel of the blocking and lighting pulled me out of the story and seemed to drain the song of its potential.
The Mon/Wed/Fri cast that I saw did give a solid vocal performance overall. A myriad of overlapping parts modulating from harmony to dissonance in Lucy Simon’s score make The Secret Garden an incredibly difficult show for the ensemble. Hearing it come out right is a notable feat. Christian brings the best out of this cast. And where the staging of some solo numbers seemed to suffer from minimal blocking and action, the ensemble countered. From the opening number and through the storms, the ensemble carried the story through to the end as a whole.
While there are always a number of notable performances in each show the one that stood out to me was Linda Jean Stephenson, who played cold Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper. With a fantastic handle on her character and an English accent that didn’t falter once Stephenson was extraordinarily entertaining and my favorite to watch. Keep an eye on her, and this excellent family-friendly show from one of my favorite Utah directors.