The McLean High Choral Society is putting on a magical performance of The Secret Garden even as it weathers budget cuts that did away with a formal class for a 50-year-old Renaissance-style singing troupe called the Madrigals.
But the Madrigals must have hopped into Dr. Who’s TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) police box and transported themselves to Victorian England for this touching musical based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Chorus teacher and performing arts department head Linda Martin trained her students, many of them in the last class of Madrigals, not only in beautiful singing, but also in Indian-style dance moves and Yorkshire accents for the story, which takes place in colonial India and northern England.
When it was on Broadway for more than 700 performances starting in 1991, Daisy Eagan became the youngest person ever to win a Tony Award at the age of 11. Her character, Mary Lennox, was played by Jennifer Rose on opening night Thursday.
In addition to her natural singing, which was especially bright on “Show Me the Key” in the first act, Rose’s character development was exceptional as she slowly progressed from sullen to ornery to lively and engaged after her parents die of cholera in India and she is forced to move to her uncle’s house on the Yorkshire moors.
She soon discovers a sickly cousin (Colin, played by Jamie Wertz), as well as a secret garden that had been kept by her now-deceased aunt Lily (whose ghost was played by the delightful soprano Lily Lord on opening night).
Mary’s uncle, Archibald Craven, thoughtfully portrayed as an oddly conflicted fellow by Alex Stone, doesn’t quite know what to do with the headstrong Mary, who quickly makes friends with Dickon (Jack Posey), a rustic who gives her the key to the walled garden.
Rose and Posey, who has good stage presence, team up for a rendition of “Show Me the Key” that portends all the hopefulness of this tender musical with book and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman and music by composer Lucy Simon.
It soon becomes Mary’s aim to get the sickly Colin into the garden for some fresh air. Wertz’s enjoyable “Round Shouldered Man,” about a man who comes into Colin’s room with a book and takes him on a magical journey on his shoulders, is the set piece of the show.
The answering melody is Stone’s “Race You to the Top of the Morning,” in which he displays great acting and storytelling skills as well as a nice regional accent and a beautiful voice:
Would to God I could stay and instead slay your dragon
This beast who sits hunched on your back
Would God I could wrench him away from your bed
Or cut off or tear off his terrible head
Or breathe out my fire on him ’til he was dead
Or beg him to spare you and take me instead
The chorus’s talent and dedication really shows in the song “Quartet,” early in the second act, harmonized by Stone, bass Matt Lucero (Dr. Neville Craven), the strong singer Nora Logsdon (as Rose, Mary’s mother), and Lord. Blocking on this and all the numbers was symbolic. Lucero acts well in his solo “Disappear.”
The cast features the lovely contralto Meg Holland as Ayah/Fakir, who augments her numbers with Indian dancing, as well as Tenor Santiago Alfonso Mesa, a terrific tenor, as the ghost of Mary’s father. Jasmine Gomez is appropriately stern as Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper, and Meg Hashem sings powerfully as Martha, a chambermaid. Rachel Lawhead’s portrayal of Martha is sure to be enjoyable on Saturday and Sunday, when seniors Grace Myers and Nancy Pruett will cap their high school experience as Mary Lennox and Lily respectively.
Also featured are Rebecca Hall (Mrs. Wright), Tala Aloul (Mrs. Holmes), Abby Clayton and Renee Zheng (Mrs. Shaw), Ariel Michaelson (Major Shelly/Alice), Christiana Barrow (Mrs. Shelly/Claire) and Rachel Jaffe (Jane). The captivating chorus and dancers are: Samia Boufia, Kendall Covington, Brigid Hanrahan, Gigi Iyob, Tori Lawrence, Zari Malik, Fabiana Mendoza, Catherine Suh, Tatiana Vez, Rachel Weatherby and Lucy Zheng. Children are played enchantingly by Nina Cotto, Nicole Henley, Raya Jabbourne, Celina Jelinski and Tori Lawrence.
The orchestra, composed of students Jinnie Park, Samantha Peng and Cynthia Zheng make beautiful melodies and incidental music throughout and really swell in the final two numbers. Ed Roberts’s keyboards take on a variety of characteristics from organ to harpsichord to piano to an almost vibraphone-like sound.
The Indian and Victorian-era costumes by Margaret Orrell fit perfectly. Sound is by Emma Knapp, and lights are by Molly O’Hare. Stage Manager Mary MacFarlane manages a number of students from elementary and middle schools who are in the ensemble.
It is a magical portrayal of a story of healing and retribution, made all the more meaningful because during rehearsals for this show, Ms. Martin, McLean High School Prinicipal Linda O’Reilly and the community pulled together in the face of declining performing arts budgets and the Madrigals will continue as an after-school option.
The Secret Garden continues tonight through June 1st, at 7 p.m. with one Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Performances are in McLean’s Burks Auditorium-1633 Davidson Road, in McLean, Virginia. Tickets are available online.
The McLean High School Choral Society, Threatened by Budget Cuts, Stages What May Be its Last Production-’The Secret Garden’-This Thursday Through Sunday.