'Secret' Finale

Cast members of "The Secret Garden" join their voices in harmony during the play's finale. In front, Joshua Thompson (Colin Craven), Mike Dodd (Archibald Craven) and Katie Huff (Mary Lennox) join Melissa Bilyeu (Martha), Lance Brandenburg (Albert Lennox), Lauren Cook (Ayah) and Rex Talmage (Ben Weatherstaff) in song. The play opens tonight at the Main Street Theatre, 225 Main Street.
Staff Photo by Terry Mathews

Intricate score, difficult melodies challenge director and actors in 'The Secret Garden'

By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor

Feb. 21, 2008 - When Community Player member Steve Janway decided he wanted to make his directorial debut this spring, he set his sights on the musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1901 children's classic, "The Secret Garden." The 1991 musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon earned seven Tony nominations and three wins, including Best Featured Actress in a Musical for its star, Daisy Eagan, then only 11 and the youngest person to win the award.

"Musicals are a lot of fun. We wanted to do one for all ages," Janway said after dress rehearsal Tuesday night. "This one is a challenge to boot."

Challenge is an understatement. There are no familiar tunes in "The Secret Garden." If you've seen Stephen Sondhiem's "Into the Woods," you'll know what I mean. You'll not leave the theater humming any of the numbers. They're musically complex. They're mostly sung in gloomy, minor keys. They don't follow any commercially-friendly pattern. In fact, watching "I Heard Someone Crying," early in the first act, I was reminded of big moments in opera. Everyone's on the stage, singing different words and different melodies, yet they somehow fit together to deliver a message.

In most musicals, singing and dancing occasionally break into the action to push the plot along. Not so with "The Secret Garden." Here, it's the acting that bridge the gap between the 28 musical moments. And since the tunes are not familiar, the audience is required to pay close attention to what's being sung, or risk missing an important piece of the action.

All the action in "The Secret Garden" revolves around Mary Lennox, a young orphan, raised in India, but sent to live in England with her reclusive English uncle, Archibald Craven, after her parents die of malaria. When she arrives, Misselthwaite Manor is filled with gloom. Her uncle wants nothing to do with her. He lost his wife (Mary's mother's sister) some 10 years back and hasn't recovered. Mary is left to her own devices, rambling through the manor's halls and grounds at will. She stumbles upon the story of a garden that has been locked up since her aunt's death. With the help of a noisy robin, she finds the key to the garden gate and enlists the estate's gardener (Ben) and a friend (Dickon) to help her revive it.

In the meantime, she discovers she has a cousin (Colin) who has been kept hidden away in a room for fear he, too, will die, like his mother.

Mary befriends Colin and decides that a trip to the garden would do him good. There, in the middle of his mother's favorite place, Colin finds the will to live, gets out of his wheelchair and begins to embrace life.

Mary Lennox is played by 13-year-old Katie Huff, a Sulphur Springs Middle School seventh-grader who proves herself more than capable of handling the difficult role during during the two and a half-hour production. Katie, the daughter of Tim and Shelly Huff, appears in almost every scene and she has to deliver some of the more difficult musical moments during the evening.

Huff mastered an English accent while playing the lead in "Dorothy Meets Alice, or The Wizard in Wonderland" in last summer's children workshop.

When asked how she learned all her lines and the songs, Huff said, "I listened to the CD of 'The Secret Garden,' and had some help from Tracey Humphries with the songs."

Huff also received vocal guidance from Carol Allen, director of the Northeast Texas Choral Society.

"We spent about 45 minutes together," Allen said in a phone interview. "Katie has a very good ear and intuitive understanding of how to sing. She has the gift of singing."

This child has a big future, should she decide to pursue acting. There is a preternatural assurance about her. She doesn't wander the stage, search for lines or become impatient when others forget theirs.

Her voice is true and up to the challenge of this score. She cleared a lot of complicated musical hurdles with ease, faltering just slightly in a couple of places.

Remember, she's got the majority of the speaking lines and is required to sing in most of the musical numbers, too. That's a lot of responsibility to put on the shoulders of a 13-year-old.

"It took me about two months to learn my lines. My school work comes first," Huff said. "So, I try really hard to get my homework done before I leave school so I'll have time to study my lines at home."

She earned praise from her director and the actor who plays her uncle.

"She is amazing," said Janway. "It was a blast working with her."

"I would have never dreamed that she was this good," Mike Dodd, her onstage uncle, said.

Dodd, a seasoned stage veteran, Stephen Kramer and Daron Bilyeu are also making a debut of sorts. The three computer wizards combined their talents and synthesized the music for the play.

"We couldn't find an arrangement we liked," Dodd explained, "so we entered the notes into our computers and scored it ourselves."

Dodd said it took about six weeks to complete the charts. They chose the piano as their instrument. There is no additional orchestration, which might initially sound bleak, but, by the end of the first act, it begins to makes sense because this show really is about the singers.

Veterans Amanda Thompson and Daron Bilyeu give fine performances as Lily, Archibald's lost love, and Dr. Neville Craven, Archibald's brother, who was also in love with Lily. Dodd is especially effective in "How Could I Ever Know," a duet with Lily's ghost. Thompson also choreographed the dance numbers.

As talented as the cast is, there are moments when they fall short, struggling with notes, pitch and phrasing. However, they are to be commended for attempting such a difficult score.

"The Secret Garden" opens tonight at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $10. The musical continues Friday and Saturday, Feb. 22 and 23 and Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 28, 29 and March 1 at 7 p.m. There will also be a matinee on Sunday, March 2, at 2 p.m. Reservations are recommended. Call 903-885-0107.

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