Washington Park Blooms with Park Playhouse Stage’s The Secret Garden

I am often conflicted as to how to treat theatrical productions that are student productions. Do you say nice, encouraging things not to discourage the up-and-coming thespians, or are you honest so they can learn objectively (the two are not mutually exclusive)? More often than not, it is never an issue with any production mounted by Playhouse Stage Company. The Playhouse Stage Academy bills itself as the Capital Region’s premier musical theater training program. Their production of The Secret Garden, currently being performed in Washington Park, certainly backs up their claim. This production stacks up technically and artistically with any professional production seen on stage throughout the Capital Region this summer.

The Secret Garden is another home run with book and lyrics by Marcia Norman and Music by Lucy Simon. Set in the early part of the 20th century, Garden is the story of young Mary Lennox, who, with her parents, is living in the British Raj at the time of the great cholera outbreak. Mary is orphaned and shipped to live with her Uncle Archibald in Yorkshire, England. 

Photo by Willie Short

The play moves back and forth between the living and the ghosts of those who have gone before them, who come back to haunt their lives. The haunting is more of a memory of what may have been than a haunting of the scary variety. The play is based on the children’s book of the same name. It occurs to me, of late, how many children’s stories are quite frightening, either psychologically or physically. It is rather amazing that generations past and the children of today are not more scared by what we were fed in the guise of entertaining stories.  But I digress.

Playhouse Stage has mounted a beautiful production. Given all of the accouterments and care of any professional production, Playhouse’s Managing Director Chuck Kraus takes the director’s reins. He has put together an incredibly creative technical group, led off with enchanting choreography and musical staging by Ashley Simone Kirchner, musical direction by Brandon Jones, PJ Davis’ striking lighting design, Tommy Rosati’s sound design, and technical direction by Stuart Chapin. Brian Axford returns to the bandshell to conduct the four-member band and has them sounding like a full-blown orchestra.

Photo by Willie Short

Marc Christopher has wonderfully re-imagined the set that was most recently used for the first Park Playhouse production of the season, Something Rotten. Gina Kowalski has stepped up the game for costumes this season. The effect and quality of the costumes are on par with and perhaps surpass those of many professional productions. Her color palette for the dead vs. the living is stark and spot on. It is an effect seen again in lighting, movement, and choreography throughout the show.

But, as we said, it is a show about the actors. The company’s opening number lets the audience know they are in for a wonderful evening, both vocally and visually. Molly Kirby is Martha, the maid who tries to comfort Mary when she arrives in England. Her rendition of A Fine White Horse is simply beautiful.

Photo by Willie Short

Uncle Archibald, played with a wonderful mix of vibrato, pathos, and sadness, is masterfully handled by Josh Hoyt. He has some great numbers, A Bit of Earth, and later in the first act, the song that clearly steals the show, the iconic duet Lily’s Eyes, matched note for note by Nat Holbrook. Definitely, I would suggest you will be left covered in chills at the song’s conclusion.

Selma Fabregas is Lily, the woman about whom much of the play circulates, and she has a voice that resonates so pure and crystal. The show, however, belongs to Sophie Geis as the young Mary Lennox. The recently turned 12-year-old is on stage for almost the entire two-plus hours. She has maturity well beyond her years. Her acting range is amazing, and her vocal talents are stunning.

Photo by Willie Short

Not to be overlooked are Declan Forcier, Molly Kantrowitz, Ava Papaleo, and Kevin Begley, all of whom add moments of sparkle and brilliance to their roles. 

It is impossible to list the entire thirty-plus cast members in the space allotted, but each of them should be acknowledged. Secret Garden is certainly a perfect example where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

What a wonderful feeling to leave the theatre and know that the future of musical theatre is in such talented, solid hands.  What needs to happen is audience support must grow. Take a blanket and perhaps a picnic, and enjoy an evening of free theatre under the stars. Prefer a seat a bit closer to the stage? Go to www.playhousestagecompany.org or call the box office at 518-434-0776 to purchase seats. The Secret Garden runs, weather permitting, through August 19.

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