It takes a special story to captivate both children and adults the way “The Secret Garden” has.
From the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett to the numerous film and stage adaptations it inspired, the story of Mary Lennox and the rejuvenating effect of TLC has stuck with audiences for generations.
After spending time in Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre earlier this year, and before it moves on to Texas in October and, at a yet unspecified date, returns to Broadway, “The Secret Garden” will temporarily call Spokane Valley home when Spokane Valley Summer Theatre’s production of the musical opens Friday.
“The Secret Garden,” follows young Mary Lennox (Noelle Fries), who was born and raised in India. After her parents die in a cholera outbreak, she is sent to Yorkshire, England to live with her uncle Archibald Craven (Michael J. Muzatko) and cousin Colin (George Dawson), who has been confined to bed since his birth.
At Misselthwaite Manor, Lennox, with the help of gardener Ben (Dennis Craig), sets to work rehabilitating a neglected garden. In turn, Mary, Colin and Archibald – still heartbroken after the death of his wife Lily (Andrea Olsen) – themselves flourish.
Marsha Norman wrote the musical’s book and lyrics, and Lucy Simon composed the music. Norman won the 1991 Tony Award for best book of a musical, and Simon and Norman were nominated for best original score.
The story hasn’t been produced in the area in a long time, director Yvonne A.K. Johnson said, because of its large scale.
But that didn’t deter Johnson, who tries to produce a family-oriented musical in the summer season. Rather, she and the creative team are pulling out all of the stops.
The production utilizes every fly line in the Central Valley High School Performing Arts Center, and some of the characters, those not clothed by costume designer Carolyn Schafer, will be wearing costumes from the original Broadway production, which are being rented from Costume World in Deerfield Beach, Florida.
To create the garden, Johnson and set designer Muzatko have five 12- to 13-foot-tall topiaries, paired with backdrops from Grosh Backdrops and Drapery, a Los Angeles-based company.
The production also utilizes a potter’s station, greenery that arches across the stage and, of course, the garden gate to bring the near-mystical garden to life onstage.
On a smaller scale, the musical will feature two fog machines and two haze machines to add effect to songs like “Storm I,” “Storm II,” “Final Storm” and “I Heard Someone Crying,” all conducted by musical director David Brewster.
When casting the role of Mary, Johnson looked for someone who could approach the role with sensibility, authenticity and vulnerability.
“Noelle Fries has been perfect for the role,” she said. “She came in fully prepared. We cast in March and when she came to her first rehearsal, she was already off book on everything.”
The cast also features, in the portion set in India, David Elridge as Fakir, Autumn Plucker as Ayah, Caryssa Murphy as Rose, Austin Burrowes as Captain Albert Lennox, Jared Korver as Lieutenant Peter Wright, Cameron Bonsignore as Lieutenant Ian Shaw, Paul Villabrille as Major Holmes, Ryan Patterson as Claire, Brie Cole as Alice, Daniel Griffith as Major Shelley and Ingrid LaVoie as Mrs. Shelley.
The section of the musical set in Yorkshire also includes Ashton Toth (Dr. Neville Craven), Darnelle Preston (Mrs. Medlock), Maitlin Toth (Martha), Christopher Tamayo (Dickon), Kate de Lane (Jane), Jameson Elton (William), Alexandria Gibbs (Betsy), Kyle Adams (Timothy) and Charlotte Orrino (Mrs. Winthrop).
“Our youngest is 11 and then we’re up into the 70s,” Johnson said. “I love it when it’s a multi-generational piece because, like I said, it’s a family oriented production. When you see that cross section, too, across the stage, I think it’s inspiring for an audience too and maybe more people think ‘I could be involved in that show. I could be involved in theater. I could do that play’.”
The still-relevant themes of “love, friendship, family, isolation, loneliness and jealousy” also attract people to “The Secret Garden,” as does the growth Lennox experiences over the course of the production.
“In Act One, she’s quite selfish. In Act Two, she’s very giving…,” Johnson said. “That’s what we hope to accomplish is we become more giving and more humble servants.”