‘The Secret Garden’ at NextStop Theatre Company

Weary of winter, Washingtonians? NextStop Theatre Company has your antidote.

Instead of a resurrection-vague Jesus Christ Superstar timed to Easter, this praiseworthy playhouse subbed in Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s lush, soul-searching The Secret Garden, an operatic and dark but uplifting musical of reawakening.

The cast of "The Secret Garden" at NextStop Theatre. L-R: Anna Jackson, Meredith Richard, Maggie Slivka, Sean McComas, Ethan Van Slyke, Katie Keyser, Caitlin Shea, Nadia Duncan, Shaina Virginia Kuhn, and John Dellaporta. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.
The cast of “The Secret Garden” at NextStop Theatre. L-R: Anna Jackson, Meredith Richard, Maggie Slivka, Sean McComas, Ethan Van Slyke, Katie Keyser, Caitlin Shea, Nadia Duncan, Shaina Virginia Kuhn, and John Dellaporta. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

Based on an Edwardian-era children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it follows orphaned Mary who, having escaped the cholera scourge, is transplanted from British India to the unforgiving Yorkshire Moors, where she must now share the haunted manor of her brooding, hunchback uncle whom she’d never met. There, with the help of some spritely servants, a neglected but beckoning garden and her resilient spirit, she mines the mysteries of love and loss.

Although the show falls heavy on the shoulders of some dreamy young actors — a pair of them take turns in key roles — this rhapsodic production is far from children’s fare.

In fact, Director Evan Hoffmann sets a chilling tone early by using what resembles a horror-film device: a dead-inside stand-in for our Mary goes through the motions of the opening narrative, while a spotlighted but confined-to-the-corners real-life Mary (a sensational, mellifluous Maggie Slivka) flicks about doing voice-over. It’s hypnotic and creepy, as the Marionette Mary invites comparisons to ghastly Samara from The Ring franchise.

Enter a world of suspended animation, where the dead spring to life and the living long for death. Yet there’s something artful and soothing here at the seams of existence. Quite literally, animation is suspended from the set, via framed projections by Projection/Lighting Designer Sarah Tundermann. Surprises continually spring from the woodwork, as Mary wanders the halls, bored and exploring, in counterpoint to her uncle Archibald Craven’s somnambulistic sorrow.

Yet, like our own gray matter, the seemingly staid, stoic set by Andrew Cohen proves smartly flexible, and with expert direction by Hoffmann and vibrant lighting, the actors carry their own ambience. The stagecraft is a blend of the elements earth, wind and fire, and the audience is charmed — transported ‘cross continents and into a perplexing world of anguish and absolution.

From the start, with the spectral, shimmering soprano of Katie Keyser (ghost of Lily Craven, Mary’s aunt) to the jaw-droppingly talented ensemble’s stormy pastiche — supported by a vast, landscape-painting orchestra that’s surprisingly compact — hold on for an “aural-gasmic” feast.

Yes, we’ll get to it. I said hold on. Everyone’s gotta hear! Just as the test of an Irish pub is the billowy Guinness pour or an Indian curry is judged on its layered onion base, productions of The Secret Garden are judged by the soaring, first-act male duet, “Lily’s Eyes.”

 John Loughney and Bobby Libby in 'The Secret Garden.' Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.
John Loughney and Bobby Libby in ‘The Secret Garden.’ Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

Like Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers’ Duet” or even hot and cold taps fusing into one stream, this number pours out in glorious tenor and baritone tones — two brothers captivated by the same dearly departed woman. John Loughney’s afflicted Archie is endlessly satisfying. (As a prelude to “Lily’s Eyes,” he slayed with the aria “A Bit of Earth,” and I was reduced to just another weeping willow.) His singing is like a stairway to heaven, shedding every earthly burden and flaw – pure, bright, astonishing, nourishing. Archie’s brother, the crafty Dr. Neville Craven, has afflictions that are not as visible – he secretly coveted his sister-in-law and his motives remain murky toward Archie and other inhabitants of Misselthwaite Manor. Groomed like Simon Legree, he seems suspicious. But, oh, how Bobby Libby inhabits him! Every fiber tingles with desire, and it’s all about the baritone.

Interestingly, the men are not alone on opposite sides of the stage for their “Lily’s Eyes” twin soliloquy. Hoffmann has intertwined the ensemble like pillars/beacons, and the men wander, threading their way to their realizations, until the final climax. It’s a beautiful motif of light and dawning that is carried throughout the production.

Which is why this show fits so well as a March repast. It roars in like a lion — gray, heavy and as impenetrable as a manor’s sentry. Then, as a flower sneakily blooms, it transforms into the harbinger of spring, with the frivolity of skipping rope and a mischievous robin, even sprinkling in a leprechaun or two for a whiff of magic.

Which brings us to all those bright spots. Another sibling pair, the heavy Irish cream of Martha (a bewitching, chatty Caitlin Shea – her moxie will grow on you, but will she grow into that wig?) and her puckish brother, Dickon, tap into Mary’s miraculous nature and guide her to wishes fulfilled. Sean McComas’ blushing portrayal of Dickon will levitate any malingering ills. (Oddly, no choreographer is credited, but there is plenty of spring in his step!)

Another gorgeously choreographed scene is the ring-around-the-roses tableau driving home the message that childhood play and discovery is but preparation for adult strife and struggle – the “we all fall down” nursery epitaph is alleged to have arisen from the time of the plague.

Costume Designer Kristina Martin maintains the dark-light contrast, the living-dead blur, with clones of Lily and Mary’s uniformed father everywhere, and just the right touch of fluid red.

The scene stealer on the night I attended, though, was Ethan Van Slyke, as the impudent yet haloed Colin, another “forgotten” bud in need of tending. Comparing him to Haley Joel Osment seeing dead people is irresistible, yet his angelic duet with his mother, “Come to My Garden,” is to die for. Van Slyke simply glows with promise.

Ethan Van Slyke and Maggie Slivka in 'The Secret Garden.' Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.
Ethan Van Slyke and Maggie Slivka in ‘The Secret Garden.’ Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

To paraphrase one of my favorite lines in the show, about how remembering all the people involved is not so terribly difficult, I must give special nods to other enchanting performances: Mikey Cafarelli, Jamie Boyle and Anna Jackson and John Dellaporta (as Mary’s dead parents) all give backbone (and goosebumps!) to the complex score. Percussionists Alex Aucoin and Glenn Scimonelli also deserve thunderous applause, along with flautist Mitch Bassman, for their pitch-perfect punctuation. Perhaps Music Director Steve Przybylski, ultimately, deserves the largest laurels for maintaining the delicate balance and dynamic decorum.

You won’t soon forget NextStop Theatre Company’s The Secret Garden’s haunting perfume. It will surely motivate you to get your hands dirty dealing with your own physical, or metaphorical, gardens. Shed your gloom and come celebrate a perennial spring in Herndon!

Running Time: About two and a half hours, including a 20-minute intermission.

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The Secret Garden plays through April 19, 2015, at NextStop Theatre Company’s Industrial Strength Theatre – 269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online. 

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif



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