Thursday, March 16, 2023

The Secret Garden (Stars Theatre 2023)

Over 20 years ago, when I was young and single, I used to play for Bakersfield Music Theater - back when they were at the Harvey Auditorium and thus had a real orchestra pit, and when they had the kind of budgets to pay for a full, albeit small, orchestra for their shows. 


One of those shows was The Secret Garden, Marsha Norman’s adaptation of the classic Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s classic from 1911. When I did it, the late legend, David Zent, played the role of Archibald Craven. Alas, I cannot remember the rest of the cast, but it was a really fun show to play - great string parts. 


Weather and car issues meant a canceled camping trip, but a chance to go see this one. 


Let me say at the outset that the show was, on the whole, good. There was one significant problem, which I will get out of the way at the outset. 


The last few shows at Stars, unfortunately, have been plagued by issues with the sound. At least one mic appears to be bad every single time, causing cracking and popping which then drowns out the singer in question. But it went beyond that this time, as for the first ten to fifteen minutes, mics were not turned on in time for the singer or speaker, or were even not turned on at all. The result was that, despite the very best efforts of the actors - and they were heroic - the first part of the show was largely incomprehensible. 


Again, this is not the fault of the actors or the band, but made their lives far too difficult. At the prices that Stars charges, this needs to be addressed. This is not high school theater, and needs to have the technical side match the levels of acting and musicianship on the stage. 


With that out of the way, I can talk about the musical itself, and the performances. 


No two hour show is going to capture all of the detail of a book, even a children’s book, so if all you know is the book, don’t expect quite the same thing. Everything has to be compressed - the setting of the stage, the discovery of the garden, the discovery of Colin, the magic that heals Colin, and the eventual melting of Archibald’s wounded heart. Like opera, everyone has to fall in love in the first act, right? The show therefore feels just a bit like the highlights of the story, without all of the time to develop the characters. 


This puts a lot of demands on the actors, of course, as they have to show the transformation of the characters in a very short time, without much help from extended dialogue or descriptive writing. 


That, in my opinion, was a strength of the show. The lead characters in particular did a good job at conveying the emotion behind the story. 


I was also impressed by the vocals. This isn’t the easiest show to sing, with modulations and an often sparse orchestration to work off of. (Particularly with no strings.) In particular, the part of Archibald is quite demanding musically as well requiring subtle acting. 


Speaking of the orchestration, the cut-down score used had essentially six or at most seven musicians (depending on the night): Keyboard, bass, percussion, two brass, two winds. Despite that, the band was good. Special call out to my friend James O’Hearn who played keys and conducted. Tough job, and he brought it all night. (Yes, I care about these things, having played plenty of show gigs back in the day.)


I knew a few people in the cast, as usual. My kids’ classmate Callie Stein-Wayne played Mary’s deceased mother, Rose, a bigger role than I had seen her in before. Josh Hefner really shone in his role as Dickon, the iconic young man with his magical relationship with nature. The role of Mary was split, and the program didn’t indicate who was her the night we attended, but I think it was Sofie Fruguglietti - and she was fantastic. As a mere 7th grader, she sang wonderfully, and brought Mary to life with her acting. (The youth theater people in this town have been raising another generation of skilled and talented young boys and girls - kudos to you all - you know who you are.) Micha Neufeld as Colin carried his part well. Like many young people, he showed a little bit of nerves by jumping in on a couple lines without quite enough space, but considering his good pitch and otherwise clear diction, I’ll give him solid marks. Danielle Chase had good chemistry as Martha - an underrated role. 

 Martha (Danielle Chase), Colin (Micha Neufeld), Dickon (Josh Hefner), and Mary (Sofie Fruguglietti)
[All pictures are publicity photos from the venue.]

I won’t name all of the other supporting characters. Those who have seen the show know that the ghosts outnumber the living characters by a lot. They serve in some ways as the old Greek chorus, commenting on the action. Except that they also interact with the living characters, carefully never touching, even during dancing. This requires that the living actors remember to look through the ghosts, even as they speak and sing with them. It is a fun part of the show, and gives a number of cast members a few lines, and in some cases, multiple parts. 

 Mary (Sofie Fruguglietti) and Martha (Danielle Chase)

Finally, though, there is Archibald Craven, the gruff uncle haunted by the early death of his wife, his deformed and ill son, and the jealous brother who feeds his guilt and grief. Dominic Demay has been a fixture of local theater for a few years, mostly at Ovation (his performance as Trunchbull in Matilda was hilarious, and he showed range in a more serious role in Once), but this may have been his best performance yet. His singing and acting have both taken a real leap forward over the last 5 or 6 years since I first saw him. 

 Lily (Cassidy Fraley) and Archibald (Dominic Demay)

The role of Archibald is definitely the most demanding in the show, as it is his redemption that if front and center even more than it is in the book. Mary may be the means, but it is his tortured soul that undergoes the most obvious transformation. (The book, if I am remembering correctly, focuses more on Mary and Colin than the musical.) Anyway, Demay was great in this show - and that goes both for the nuanced acting, and the strong and sensitive singing. I really enjoyed watching him. 


Overall, a good show. I just wish Stars would take the time necessary to get the technical stuff right, so that the performers can shine without distraction. 


1 comment:

  1. Just for clarification regarding a commenter whose comments were deleted for being in violation of this blog's comment policy:
    I do not make any money for this blog - not from ads, not from any of the venues I go see state productions at.
    I am not affiliated with any venue, although I did take on some gigs with BMT/Stars some 20+ years ago. I do have a lot of friends in local theater, who perform at all of the local venues.
    If I receive a comp ticket from a friend who is performing, I disclose that. For the overwhelming number of shows, I buy my own ticket.
    When I can, I use the venue's publicity photos that they share on social media for illustration - essentially a "share this with all your friends" approach, just with my comments.
    I am not here to argue with anyone about my experiences. I'm not a professional influencer, I do not get paid for this, and do not have time to get into it with people who want to tell me how wrong I am. (Again, see the comment policy.)