In the Moment: Interviews of NextStop Theatre Company’s Evan Hoffmann, Katie Keyser, John Loughney, and Bobby Libby of ‘The Secret Garden’

We caught up with NextStop Theatre Company to learn more about its upcoming production of the musical The Secret Garden. The Secret Garden premiered on Broadway in 1991 and received multiple Tony Awards and multiple Drama Desk Awards. It has book and lyrics by Marsha Norman with music by Lucy Simon. The musical is based on the classic 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

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NextStop Theatre performs at the Industrial Strength Theatre in Herndon, Virginia. The troupe has a long successful award-winning history in the area, tracing its roots back to 1988 when it began life as a municipal experimental theatre company.

David Siegel: Tell me a bit about The Secret Garden

NextStop Theatre Company's Artistic Director Evan Hoffman.
NextStop Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Evan Hoffman.

Evan Hoffmann, NextStop Theatre Artistic Director, and Director of The Secret Garden: The Secret Garden is based on one of the most beloved novels of all time. Francis Hodgson Burnett’s beautiful story of an orphaned girl named Mary Lennox deals with death, loss, guilt, regret, but most of all, redemption. Though many people think of it as a children’s novel, NextStop is building a production that focuses on these universal themes in order to make the piece truly accessible for all ages.

I recall how much I loved the “magical” nature of this story as a child. But now, as a husband and father, I see that the journey these characters go on is a very honest and thoughtful examination of the powerful (and sometimes painful) bonds that hold a family together.

Why do you think that audiences, both young and older, will enjoy The Secret Garden?

Because this show is a joyful and entertaining story about the enduring power of love, through all obstacles and across all boundaries. Also, it is some of the most fantastic music that I have ever had the pleasure of working on.

What did you look for in casting?

The book and music that Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon wrote for this show is exceptionally challenging. It was required that we find accomplished and versatile singers to execute the lush and complex score. Most importantly, we had to spend a long time looking for the perfect young actors to portray Mary and Colin. They are at the center of this piece and carry so much of the weight of the show. I have never worked on a show that expected so much from child performers, both in terms of singing and acting. We are truly fortunate to have the four exceptional, local talents that we do.

How would you describe the set design?

Our scenic designer for this production is Andrew Cohen. He recently graduated from the prestigious MFA program at the University of Maryland. One of our favorite things to do at NextStop is to figure out how to fit these kinds of epic-scale shows into our intimate venue. For this production, Andrew has designed a very special Edwardian ballroom that has some very unique features that will allow us to move from Colonial India to the moors of Yorkshire to a lush garden.

How would you describe the musical style of the score? Any particular song you would like to highlight?

Steve Przybylski, Musical Director: It’s an eclectic and wonderfully British score, shifting effortlessly from sweeping waltzes to heartbreaking ballads to high-energy folk-rock, and stopping everywhere in between. If I had to pick just one song: while it may be biased of me, I’d hope that the audiences stick around to hear the exit music. It’s the most fun thing in the book to play.

How many are in the orchestra, and what instruments are played?

It is a 7-piece orchestra; keyboard, two reed books (Oboe/English Horn and Flute/Piccolo/Alto Flute/Clarinet/Pennywhistle/Recorder/Pan Pipes), viola, cello, bass and percussion. It is an unusual orchestration, but very, very lovely.

What would you like audiences to come away with after they hear the score?

I always have difficulty answering questions like this, because I don’t really think of the score as something separate; it’s part of the whole storytelling machine, so the takeaway I hope most for is that the audience has taken the ride with us. If we’ve been able to take the audience on a journey from our little theatre to a Yorkshire manor, the moors, India, and a magical garden, I’ve done my job.

David: Please tell me about your character.

Katie Keyser.
Katie Keyser.

Katie Keyser: Lily is the guiding light in this story. She represents the peace that Mary, Colin, and Archibald are all seeking. In her life, she was a pure and sweet and she loved Archie deeply, despite his physical imperfections. She found simple pleasures in being surrounded by nature when tending to her garden. I think her ghost lingers in this story, not only because Archibald cannot let go of her memory, but also because it pains her to see her loved ones so miserable. She yearns for her husband and her child to find the happiness that she once had in life.

John Loughney.
John Loughney.

John Loughney: Archibald is the master of Misselthwaite Manor, who suffers from a crooked spine and general ill health. He has been in an incredible depression ever since the death of his wife, Lily, ten years prior to the start of the show. Archibald spends most of his time away from the house, since he wants to see neither his house nor his son, Colin, because everything in the house, including his son and the garden, remind him of his late wife.

Bobby Libby.
Bobby Libby.

Bobby Libby: In many ways, Dr. Neville Craven is the polar opposite of his morose brother, Archibald, who even after 10 years have passed is still consumed by mourning the death of his wife, Lily. While Neville was also devastated by the loss of Lily, he processes his grief and emotions in different ways. Archibald hangs on intensely to the memory of Lily – literally still haunted by her ghost – whereas I deliberately cut off these feelings of pain and loss, and instead throw myself into my duties as a caretaker to my frail nephew, and helping Archie run and maintain Misselthwaite. It’s notable that ghosts are constantly present in scenes in The Secret Garden, typically appearing in connection to the characters still holding on to their memory, most often Archibald and Mary. However, since I have successfully cut off my own feelings of pain and loss, I never see these ghosts.

If you could invite audiences to see the production, what would you say to them?

Katie: Come for the story and the music! It is a re-telling of a classic children’s story, dealing with heart-breaking loss and change and how, through the eyes of a child, discovering a new life is always possible. The music is haunting, exhilarating, and intense…it’s going to be a real treat for our audiences and I couldn’t be more excited to share it!

John: To put it simply, it’s a gorgeous score coupled with a touching story.

Bobby: There are honestly too many things to recommend in this production that I’m overwhelmed by what to list first. In no particular order, this production offers: a gorgeously rich and intricate score, an incredibly varied and talented ensemble, a moving story that is a meditation on loss and love, some awesomely ambitious technical wizardry, and a celebration of spring right when our region needs it most! Ultimately, though, the themes explored in this story are so universal, it’s the epitome of a show that can appeal to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. If you’ve ever struggled with the loss of a loved one, if you’ve ever felt alone in an unfamiliar place, if you’ve ever felt stuck in pain and unable to move on, or if you’ve ever felt healed by the therapeutic wonder of nature, this show is sure to resonate.Eli Schulman.

Lastly, this show features two very demanding child characters, and the four young actors we have playing them have consistently blown me away in every rehearsal by the maturity and depth in their portrayals.

Isabella Brody.
Isabella Brody.
Maggie Slivka.
Maggie Slivka.
Ethan Van Slyke.
Ethan Van Slyke.
Eli Schulman.
Eli Schulman.

While this show boasts an incredibly talented ensemble all around, you’re in for a real treat in seeing how Isabella Brody and Maggie Slivka [rotating in role of Mary Lennox] and Ethan Van Slyke, and Eli Schulman [rotating in role of Colin] tackle these intense scenes.

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The Secret Garden plays from March 26 to April 9, 2015 at NextStop Theatre Company at the Industrial Strength Theatre – 269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 481-5930, or purchase them online.