`Garden' blooms in spare setting

Musical: Emphasis on words and music, not sets and costumes makes show a success.

Arundel Live

February 14, 2002|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For the last pop concert of the season at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts last weekend, J. Ernest Green staged a minimalist production of The Secret Garden with a purity that made fully staged versions of the musical seem excessive.

The two performances of the seldom-staged 1991 musical extended the performers' reach while expanding the audience's horizons.

The stage was filled with musicians - the full chorale in the back with the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra in front, leaving barely enough space for the actor-soloists and demonstrating how little need exists for fancy costumes, elaborate sets or extensive stage space.

Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel, set in 1911 England, the story centers on young Mary Lennox, orphaned by a cholera epidemic in India and sent to live with her Uncle Archibald in Yorkshire. Still grieving for his wife Lily, who died 10 years earlier during childbirth, and distraught over the condition of his bedridden son Colin, Archibald casts a dark shadow over the manor.

Mary stands up to Archibald's brother Neville, a physician, who resents her intrusion into their lives. Mary eventually finds normality provided by the chambermaid Martha, her brother Dickon, and gardener Ben. She discovers her bedridden cousin Colin, hidden away and unable to walk. Mary finds Lily's secret garden, which she replants, and here she restores health to her cousin and to his emotionally crippled father.

The story is given new life through the music by Lucy Simon (singer Carly Simon's sister) with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman. The simple story deals with large human issues, such as love that transcends death, smothering parental devotion, nature's healing power and a child's need of other children. The emotional impact of these themes is heightened when set to music.

Green was producer, script editor, stage manager, lighting, casting and artistic director, and music director, conducting the chorus, orchestra and principals.

The performance began against a backdrop of light and color that changed with the music, growing complex with the music's seamless melodic transitions and cresting when Lily appeared at elevated center stage, stepping through the mist to sing an angelic solo.

As Lily, Amy Cofield became an angel, expressing her enduring love for her husband and child, her need to be free of them to ensure their survival. Cofield's clear, bell-like voice took on a darker, burnished quality to express her conflicting emotions when she joined Archibald in "How Could I Ever Know?"

Ryan de Ryke was brilliant as Archibald, compassionate toward his son and Mary, and expressing his longing for Lily. De Ryke reached emotional heights in duets with Archibald's wife and another with Scott Root, who powerfully portrayed Neville.

Their male duet, "Lily's Eyes," was the show's musical peak. In his duet with Cofield, de Ryke displayed an astonishing range, moving easily from rich baritone to a tenor's realm.

As Martha, Hope Harris brought welcome warmth and humor, along with a first-rate voice. As Dickon, Thomas Magette delivered warmth and his usual high professionalism.

The children, part of the recently formed Annapolis Youth Chorus, added appealing vitality and established rapport with the children in the audience. As Colin, 9-year-old David Dickey sang well and conveyed his character's growing from sheltered invalid to outgoing, lively boy.

In the challenging role of Mary, 10-year-old Kelsey Carper was beyond reproach, portraying a once-pampered girl who now "stands so still and looks so old" as she adjusts to her lot, learning to care for others as she revitalizes the garden and herself.

Green acknowledges Katie Hale and Laurie Hays as the children's dialogue and music coaches, and Philip Hale, who helped with the production.

Green, the chorale and the soloists brought a fresh approach to music-making that created a magical Garden in Annapolis.

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