Local roots help conductor make 'Secret Garden' grow

February 18, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Contributing Writer

If "The Secret Garden" is to bloom, Jeff Halpern must carefully tend to its score.

Mr. Halpern, music director and conductor for the touring Broadway musical version of the classic children's novel, running at the Lyric Opera House through Sunday, is as enthusiastic as any backyard gardener in describing the musical influences planted in the score.

He cites influences ranging from turn-of-the-century French classical music to English and American folk tunes of the same period. And because it was composed by Lucy Simon -- sister of pop singer Carly Simon -- it's not surprising this eclectic score also has contemporary-sounding moments.

"The melodies are extremely beautiful and evocative. They're not like Broadway shows in which the tunes are 'tune-y,' but they're more like a lush cinematic score," Mr. Halpern notes, waxing melodic from a hotel room overlooking the Peabody Institute, where as a youth he studied at the Peabody Prep.

Although this 36-year-old musician doesn't quite qualify as a Baltimorean -- his family moved here from Cleveland when he was a child and returned to Cleveland when he was in his early teens -- Baltimore can lay claim to his musically formative years.

Many kids are able to carry a tune, but young Jeff Halpern could write them. Moreover, as a 13-year-old living in Pikesville, he wrote a collection of Broadway-style songs that were given a fully-staged production titled "As If You Could" at Beth El Congregation. This sort of musical precocity definitely set him apart from the sandlot norm.

"Growing up in the way we did, with my family kind of moving around, and being a sensitive kid was all very stressful," Mr. Halpern says in a tone suggesting not all the memories were happy ones.

His present success comes as no surprise to those who knew him when.

"Jeff was earmarked to be very musical," says Ann Pumpian, a Pikesville resident who was a neighbor of the Halperns when they lived there. "He was not your ordinary youngster. People still remember his impact here."

"He was outstandingly talented in classical music," recalls a former teacher, the Baltimore pianist Agi Rado.

After completing his high school education in Cleveland, Mr. Halpern went on to get a master's degree in music from the University of Michigan. Since then, he has taught music privately and at a few universities. Living in New York, he also has been active as the music director for experimental theater and new operas. One of his most interesting projects was working with Carly Simon on her children's opera, "Romulus Hunt," presented in a New York production and also at the Kennedy Center in Washington last spring.

Mr. Halpern has temporarily become a Baltimorean during the weeklong run of "The Secret Garden," but two cast members retain ties to area zip codes. Andy Bowser, an 11-year-old from Bowie, has a leading role in the musical; and a member of the ensemble, Marguerite Shannon, is from Towson.

Unlike the role he plays -- an invalid named Colin whose attitude is even worse than his health -- Andy Bowser is the picture of good-natured health. He's also perfectly capable of relating his own show-biz biography -- either the long or the short bio, depending on which you'd prefer. His mom, Sue, is there to interject details. Also, Andy's dad, Paul, has done some acting himself, having been in the same community theater production of "The Music Man" as Andy.

Not that Andy risks being typecast, but his most prominent role prior to playing the sickly English youngster in "The Secret Garden" was embodying the lame Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at Ford's Theater in Washington in 1992. "It was pretty easy to limp," he says with the nonchalance of a theater veteran.

Andy's mom has accompanied him for several months on a road tour of "Secret Garden" that has at least a few more months to go. Because he studies with a tutor who simultaneously teaches other children in the cast, it's not surprising that Andy momentarily draws a blank when asked what grade he is in and then remembers that he is in the sixth.

Andy says that he really liked the company's recent performances in Japan but that it took a while to get used to the Japanese custom of sitting in polite silence through the show and only voicing approval at its conclusion.

"They thought of it as rude to clap during a show, so they'd wait until the end of the curtain call before applauding."

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