When I first heard SMUS would perform The Secret Garden, I recalled the book I read as a child, and thought, “How could that be a play, much less a musical?” Though the story was a childhood favourite, I didn’t see how the horticultural efforts of an ailing child and his orphaned cousin could be very dramatic.
Of course, I was quickly proven wrong.
The Secret Garden musical begins on a tragic note, as young Mary Lennox (Ellen Law) is shipped off to England as soon as she finds out her parents have been lost to cholera. When she arrives, a brusque welcome from Mrs. Medlock (Becca Clayton) does little to reassure her and she soon finds herself left to her own devices in a strange country and a large house brimming with spirits and lost souls (not the same thing).
Mary’s Uncle Archibald (Danny Park) is lost in the sense he can’t let go of his late wife Lily, who died 10 years ago, but whose spirit remains in the house. Mary herself reminds him of Lily, and his brother Dr. Craven (Lindon Carter) sees her presence as dangerous.
Carter does a great dramatic work as the doctor, a man harbouring a secret or two, and Park (habitually upbeat in real life) pulls off a nuanced portrait of confusion and sadness. Brightening up the story are the sunny maid Martha (Meriah Drabkin) and her nature-loving brother Dickon (Cormac O’Brien) who are both charming and sporting Yorkshire accents.
Jasper Johnston, who some may recognize from the Middle School’s Oliver, is hilarious as the infirm cousin Colin, who is surprisingly energetic in his petulance. Ben Weatherstaff (William Brown), the gruff gardener, brings a few laughs as well.
On the ghostly end of things, Cati Landry (Lily) brings her stunning voice to the loving mother role, and Fintan O’Brien and Celeste Nussbaum (Mary’s late parents) are talented vocalists who have great chemistry.
The pit orchestra does a wonderful job setting the disconcerting tone of the first act, and Law gives a great turn as a sullen yet spirited Mary. (Celine Doehring is also playing Mary – she takes the stage tonight – and I heard she did an excellent job on opening night). The ensemble players, dreamers and background players, bring powerful songs and choreographed movements, while the five dancers add a little bit of magic and wonder to the show.
The cast has an array of strengths – some are singers first and foremost, some are talented dancers and some are wonderful actors – and their abilities combine well as an ensemble cast. The visual spectacles of both the sets and the large-scale musical numbers give the show a professional feel, but the energy, charm and excitement of high school performers is equally on display.
The Secret Garden strikes a balance between the morose and joyful. Compared to the fun-and-games of Guys and Dolls and the tragedy of Miss Saigon, it finds a middle ground with a dark first act and a heartwarming turn at the end.
Complete photos are available in the SMUS photo gallery.