“I’m sure there is magic in everything,” says the invalid child Colin in The Secret Garden, “only we have not sense to get hold of it.”
If you want to believe in magic again, see Colonial Players’ production of the children’s classic that has been delighting musical theater audiences for 25 years. With award-winning songs, clever staging and an animated cast, it delivers all the haunting magic of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Edwardian original and then some. Like a dream in black and white, this show blurs the line between this world and the next in spinning the tale of headstrong Mary Lennox (Madi Heinemann), orphaned in India and shipped home to her miserable Uncle Archibald’s (Justin T. Ritchie) English estate. It’s a haunted place of miraculous possibilities where the crippled are made whole, body and soul.
Colonial’s tiny theater-in-the-round is perfect for the show’s musical narratives enhanced by sharp choreography and an imaginative set. Dance takes center stage as a plot device in the seamless prologue when a scarlet silk handkerchief passed among dancers illustrates the cholera epidemic that orphans Mary. One by one the victims fall, starting with her parents, Captain and Mrs. Lennox (Heather McMunigal and Kory Twit).
Accompanying the dance is a sterling chorus of neighbors who provide back story and commentary on life at Misselthwaite Manor: Major Holmes (Cory Jones), Alice (Kaelynn Miller), Betsy/Mrs. Winthrop (Erin Branigan), Lt. Shaw (Kyle Gonzalez), Claire Holmes (Kaitlin Fish) and Lt. Wright (Greg Anderson).
The manor is crawling with ghosts, primary among them Archibald’s wife, Lily (Lindsay Espinosa), who worries over him and their invalid son Colin (Reid Murphy), despite the ministrations of Archie’s jealous physician-brother Neville (Kevin Cleaver). But Mary has the company of a sympathetic maid, Martha (Ella Green), her young brother Dickon (Samuel Edward Ellis) and the gardener, Ben (Danny Brooks). With their help, she discovers Lily’s secret garden and brings its healing power to all the sick and restless.
With just one piece of furniture, some tissue clouds and myriad special effects, this show conveys a better sense of time, place and action than more opulent productions I have seen. Innovative lighting evokes a full moon, thunderstorms, a skyline of minarets suggesting Mary’s homeland and a robin flitting overhead, symbolized by migrating red chaser lights. Three projectors broadcast films around the theater to simulate actions from the mundane act of opening the curtains to a bucolic train ride and the inner sanctum of the garden beyond its imposing walls.
The costumes range from drab English earth tones to the tropical whites and lacy gowns of India’s ruling class, where only the turbaned Fakir (Aubrey Baden) and sari-clad Ayah (Fish) dazzle in color. Attention to detail is evident from the housekeeper’s (Cristina Shunk) magnificent key belt to the red trim incorporated into Mary’ dress as she warms to her surroundings.
Among a cast of talented singers, Ritchie and Espinosa thrill in A Bit of Earth and How Could I Ever Know, and Green delights with her fine Yorkshire accent in A Fine White Horse. Cleaver’s duet with Ritchie (Lily’s Eyes) is unforgettable, and Ellis delights in Wick with a presence that feels metaphysical. Heinemann’s signature song, The Girl I Mean to Be, is charming but difficult to hear over the taped accompaniment — a dilemma common to the other children’s soli and the sole technical problem of this production.
See this chestnut with someone you love, young or old, and bring a hanky.
By Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Director: Lois Evans. Musical Director: Wendy Baird. Choreographer: Carol Cohen. Stage Manager: Andy McLendon. Set: Laurie Nolan. Sound/Effects: Julien C. Jacques. Lights: Eric Lund. Costumes: Jean Carroll Christie. Dialect/Vocal Coach: Nancy Krebs. Musical Accompaniment by Right on Cue Services.
Runs two and a half hours: Thru May 8, Th-Sa at 8pm, Su at 2, Colonial Players, 108 East St. Annapolis. $20 with discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.