Review by Jason Wert
Springfield Little Theatre’s latest production, The Secret Garden, is set to debut tomorrow night at the Landers Theatre and run through May 19. The show is filled with complex arrangements, powerful performances and lush music. However, the play’s complex story can allow a casual fan who doesn’t know it to miss some key points early, and at some points all the players on the stage can be a bit confusing, forcing the audience to be a very active viewer of the production.
There is a lot of good in the production. The strongest asset of the production is one the audience will never see: the orchestra. The music for this production is so good that unless you realized there was a live orchestra under the stage, you would think the production was using recorded tracks from a broadway quality orchestra. Conductor Susan Gravatt and her musicians invisibly steal this show.
There are several outstanding performances among the cast.
Aravis Leininger, in the lead role of Mary Lennox, puts on a very strong performance. The 8th grader easily assumes the mantle of a girl who is having to come to grips with losing everything in her life including her parents and being taken to a strange land with no idea what lay in front of her. Vocally, she can hold her own with the adult performers in shared songs. You can tell she’s been a part of more than a dozen productions in her young career.
Maggie Shermoen is pitch-perfect as Martha, a chambermaid who befriends Mary. Shermoen keeps her Yorkshire accent in place throughout the production, not slipping once away into her normal speech. She also has a very powerful singing voice that translates well to the songs she performs in the show. She also is effective in her body language on stage to enhance the spirited, carefree nature of the character.
Sean Spyers, who plays the broken patriarch of the story Archibald Craven, shows off his background with opera in his vocal performances. He clearly enunciates every word and knows when and how to use vocal inflection to enhance the emotion of a song. He also is quite effective in his performance showing a man clearly broken by the death of his wife and wandering through life trying to find meaning that seems just out of reach.
The show’s direction is also outstanding in the way they use the entire stage’s depth to enhance the production. The way the sets fly in the different levels work very effectively behind the actors and you usually don’t find yourself focusing on the changes going on. The chorus that moves much of the background scenery also does a very effective job.
Now, there were issues that bothered me throughout the production.
The first is from the play itself and not the fault of Springfield Little Theatre’s staff. The backstory for the show is provided in the classic Greek Chorus method from cast members that you later realize are ghosts; because that’s not made clear at the outset it can be confusing to those who don’t know the story of the Secret Garden. If an audience member isn’t really paying close attention, they can find themselves lost for a good part of the first half, with one audience member who knew nothing of the book telling me at intermission they weren’t sure if Mary was really alive or if this was some kind purgatory situation. Again, you can’t hang that on Springfield Little Theatre; this is just one of those musicals you can’t just sit back, unplug and enjoy.
The chorus were a little muddy in their vocal performances in the first half of the show; it was hard to understand them at times. As a result, it was hard to pick up some of backstory they were telling the audience, which may have contributed to some of the confusion a few of the audience members mentioned to me.
There were also a few times the audio mix seemed a little out of balance; during the song “I Heard Someone Crying” you couldn’t hear Mary’s vocal when the ensemble was singing. A few times the microphones for the performers came on a second or so late.
And this isn’t really something “bad” about the performance per se, but just a matter of personal opinion. The dancers in the show were fantastic, the choreography was on point; but at times I found it distracting from the actual storyline and performances of the lead actors. There were times I found myself thinking it would have been much more effective to allow the main cast to keep the stage; the song “Wick” comes to mind. Aravis as Mary and Andrew Phinney as Dickon are outstanding in that song and the movement around them took away from their performances.
It was that moment in the show I wrote in my notes, “do we really need this much background dancing?” Again, it’s not that the dancers weren’t very good at what they were doing; it just felt unnecessary in that moment.
Overall, if you’re someone familiar with the story of The Secret Garden and you’re a fan of lush, orchestrated musicals with multiple plot lines that you have to really pay attention to understand, you’re going to love this show because it would be exactly what you would want to see. If you’re someone who prefers a musical more like Grease or SLT’s upcoming Footloose, I’m not really sure you’d walk away from this show raving about what you had seen but not because the performances were not very good to excellent: using a less-than-stellar analogy, it would be like someone who doesn’t really like fish having a fish dinner cooked for them by a Michelin starred chef; you’d appreciate it, you’d have to admit it was perfectly prepared and presented; you just wouldn’t want to go back for seconds.