Caitlin Deerin as Mary Lennox visits Archibald (Steve Antonsen)… (Photo courtesy of Cockpit…)
Like "The Secret Garden" that gives this 1991 Broadway musical its title, the production at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre takes a while to blossom. It has its share of vocal highlights and always remains enjoyable, but the story's powerful emotions are fitfully conveyed before finally coming across with full force at the end.
The reason partly lies in the musical itself. Based on the beloved 1911 children's novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the story concerns a 10-year-old girl, Mary Lennox, who is orphaned when her parents suddenly die in India. She is sent to live with her widowed uncle, Archibald Craven, whose English mansion seems all the lonelier owing to his reclusive behavior.
Mary discovers that her uncle has an even more reclusive son, Colin, who is like a family secret hidden away in an upstairs bedroom. She also discovers a secret garden that's now abandoned and locked up, as if symbolically representing Archibald's mental state.
Mary will find ways to make this garden, herself and her relatives bloom again.
That story does come across in the book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, but so much stage time is given over to the white-garbed ghosts of Mary's parents and Archibald's wife that the living members of the family don't always seem to have enough time to fully claim our attention.
Similarly, the capable musical score by Lucy Simon gives so much stage time to boisterous songs by "Mary Poppins"-evocative family servants that the protagonists often seem like they're playing second fiddle to the hired help.
These structural drawbacks in the show are somewhat mitigated by the Cockpit in Court production, directed and choreographed by Tom Wyatt, because the casting for the ghosts and servants alike is quite lively.
Where this local staging falls a bit short, however, is that its set design by G. Maurice "Moe" Conn and lighting by Kacey Coffin aren't sufficiently atmospheric. The English mansion needs to be moodier and the much-anticipated blooming of the garden needs more than some flowers pasted on a wall. Also, director Wyatt needs more cogent traffic management in an opening, India-set scene that seems rather clumsy in its staging and admittedly fast narrative transitions.
What ultimately makes this staging work is that the actors are completely engaged in their roles and nearly all get chances to vocally shine.
As Mary Lennox, Caitlin Deerin is quite convincing as the troubled girl. Deerin's singing voice isn't always consistent, but she seems likely to, er, grow into the role with more time spent in that garden. She proves with "The Girl I Mean To Be" that she knows how to develop her character through song.
Some of the best acting in this production comes from Steve Antonsen as Mary's Uncle Archibald, because he really seems slumped in perpetual melancholy. He's also a steady presence with his singing.
Although the two show-stealing servants, Martha (Robyn Bloom) and Martha's brother, Dickon (Kevin Connell Muth), tend to pull attention away from the protagonists, both of these actors are so bursting with English-accented enthusiasm that perhaps there is no point in complaining about the characters they play. Bloom confidently sings "A Fine White Horse," and she and Muth nicely blend their voices on "Show Me the Key."
Reliable performances also come from the ghosts: Sherry Benedek as Archibald's wife, Lily Craven; and Carol Anne Drescher and Kevin James Logan as Mary's parents, Rose and Albert Lennox. In a duet between a live husband and his dead wife, Antonsen and Benedek movingly sing "A Girl in the Valley."
Others in a strong cast include Matthew Liam Demetrides as Lily and Archibald's sickly son, Colin Craven; and Joey Hellman as Archibald's brother, Dr. Neville Craven. Hellman and Antonsen have an admirable fraternal duet as they recall "Lily's Eyes."
Also proving steady all evening is a large ensemble that sings and dances with precision. It is kept on the beat by the generally solid orchestra conducted from the keyboard by Elizabeth Fink. The many actors and musicians collectively glide this production moving along at an agreeable clip, and they help it eventually realize the story's emotional potential.
Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre's "The Secret Garden" runs through July 3 at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, 7201 Rossville Blvd. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. There also is a Thursday performance June 30 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20, $18 for seniors, $12 for children 12 and younger. Call 443-840-2787 or go to http://www.ccbcmd.edu/performingarts.