VERSAILLES — With its last show of the season, The Woodford Theatre enhances its reputation as one of the leading community theaters in the region. Its production of The Secret Garden, Lucy Simon and Louisville native Marsha Norman's Tony Award-winning 1991 musical, is an engaging and heartwarming incarnation of this children's classic for grown-ups.
Stage director James W. Rodgers — revisiting the show after having directed Lexington's first (and most recent) production at the University of Kentucky in 1996 — brings that fluency and familiarity to telling the story, with clear action and compelling stage pictures. With the aid of set designer Patrick Maloney, Rodgers finds many creative ways of utilizing empty spaces on the stage, echoing the loneliness and isolation of all the hurting characters. Best of all, his unfussy, straightforward approach allows the characters to delve deeply into portraying their nuanced relationships, so that their gradual healing of all kinds is truly moving rather than merely sentimental.
To the unitiated, The Secret Garden, adapted from a beloved 1911 children's book, revolves around a young orphan girl sent to live with her sad widower uncle in his sprawling English mansion. There, she uncovers a hidden garden, which leads to spiritual and emotional regeneration for everyone.
As the ghostly gardener Lily, Jessica French is the soul of the show. Her beautiful voice and detailed acting rivet the audience's attention whenever she is on the stage. Her emanation of love is so strong that her influence seems more like that of a powerful guardian angel than of a wondrous woman haunting everyone's memories.
The children are also superb. As the orphan girl Mary, Bella Mancuso (who alternates in the role with Grace Brown) brings full acting range and strong singing in a part that made Daisy Eagan the youngest Tony Award winner in history. Mancuso's performance is full of energy, and she is both credible and sympathetic from beginning to end. Joseph Waterbury-Tieman also gives a lively and nuanced performance as the invalid Colin.
Johnathan Watson reprises the role of the grieving widower Archibald, having performed it under Rodgers in the production at UK. He bring a heart-breaking intensity to the part. This is his first time back on the stage in the better part of a decade, and his singing voice is indeed rusty, somewhat pinched and tight, but he makes that work for the self-absorbed character, and never gives it less than his all. Certainly, he serves this meaty part worthily.
As is so frequently the case, the most delightful characters in this play are the rustics. Jan Hooker is perky and vibrant as the chambermaid Martha, singing her folk songs with a clear, piping voice. Even better, Evan Sullivan brings a strong, masculine vitality to the mystical, earthy Dickon, the role that introduced the wispier John Cameron Mitchell to the limelight when he originated the role on Broadway. Sullivan's exuberance transforms the roustabout character into sort of an earth-brother, a corporeal counterpart to Lily. Tonda-Leah Fields and Greg Wilson as the housekeeper and head gardener, respectively, also lend great acting chops to their parts.
In fact, everyone in the show is very good. Some who have shining moments among the large cast are Robert Hoagland as Archibald's villainous brother, Alyssa Marie Pendleton as Lily's sister, and Rick Wayman and Millie Hamilton as Indian nationals.
The only sub-par element to this production is the frankly rag-tag little band. Music director Donna Bonner does a fine job conducting, and some of the players are decent, but the ensemble seems under-rehearsed for such a delicate, involved musical score. The flute player particularly was out of tune and behind the beat throughout Friday's opening-night performance, and unfortunately that really stands out in a five-piece reduced orchestration. Karen Thomas Snider is an excellent pianist, but surely The Woodford Theatre could have afforded to tune the little spinet on which she was made to play. In a musical, the music counts.
IF YOU GO
'The Secret Garden'
What: The Woodford Theatre's production of the musical The Secret Garden, a 1991 musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 novel.
When: 8 p.m. June 1, 7-8, 14-15; and 2 p.m. June 2, 9, 16.
Where: The Woodford Theatre, Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center, 275 Beasley Rd., Versailles.
Tickets: $19 adults, $12 students. Available at (859) 873-0648 and Woodfordtheatre.com.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musician, theater artist and lecturer at the University of Kentucky.