The “Secret” of Success at John Cooper School

With this happy late night task before me, there is still something unsettling about attempting to review a production that is so epic in scale, and so monumental in its achievement, that I most certainly could never fully do it justice within the newspaper world’s limits of time and space. But such is the case with the John Cooper School’s wondrous production of The Secret Garden. Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, and music by Lucy Simon, this very courageous edition, featuring inspired direction from Joseph Demonico, is nothing short of splendid. My use of the word “courageous” was not without purpose. It expresses my overall impression that the folks at John Cooper have essentially taken on the impossible task of training secondary school students to perform this extraordinarily complex and sophisticated musical, and against all odds have pulled it off magnificently.

I hesitate to spend my space here elaborating on the somewhat complicated and literally spooky plot. We have the young girl, Mary (Whitney Brandt) who lives with her family in early 20th century India until an epidemic leaves her an orphan who is whisked away to Great Britain and the eerie manor house of her hunchbacked uncle Archibald Craven (Ranjeet Paul). There she meets a cast of characters that includes the kindly housemaid, Martha (Emily Jacobson), Martha’s brother, Dickon (Alex Novak), Mrs. Medlock the housekeeper (Margie McGregor), Dr. Neville Craven, Archibald’s brother, (Cody Guinn), head gardener, Ben (Holden Tikkanen), and Archibald’s ten year-old son, Colin. (Annabelle Cousins). However, the house is heavily haunted by ghosts that include Mary’s Aunt Lily (Angie Lopez Videla as Archibald’s late wife), Mary’s mother Rose (Nisha Balsara), and her father the Captain (Mark Farley). There are many other ghosts as well who are cast listed as the Dreamers, and it must be said that the ghosts in this show offer ensemble singing of the highest order (Music Director, Donna Arnold), and they create a solid mood of mystery as they seem to gracefully float across the stage and throughout the audience. Theirs are among the most exotic of the show’s many beautiful costumes designed by Jo-anne Cousins and Pamela Taylor. [The lovely traditional Indian costumes worn by some in the cast, belonged to those Indian students themselves.]

Among the twists and turns in the plot line there is, of course, a mysterious secret garden that young Mary discovers on the estate. Another household secret is the well-hidden (and bedridden) Colin, who never comes out of his room. And of course there are strange noises in this house. Now we cannot discuss the manor house, or the soon-to-be-lovely garden, without mention of the creative set designer, Darwin Gilmore, now a senior at my alma mater, the University of Texas in Austin. Working with scenic artist, Rod Flower, and stage manager Aamer Rakla, Gilmore’s smooth concepts allow house to become garden, garden to become house, and walls to lift clear to reveal action in the rooms. Well done! There was also shadowy and mysterious lighting from designer, Lauren Gallup. The blood-red abstract designs of the “Opening Dream’s” silken backdrop grabbed the audience attention and then suddenly vanished as though this were a magic show. The focused intensity of that number’s outstanding ensemble singing, coupled with the exotic Indian dancing for a knockout opener. With choreography by Elizabeth Demonico, dance would frequently highlight beautifully mounted scenes like “A Girl in the Valley,” with its lovely waltz, and the exotic Act II “Come Spirit, Come Charm” ritual dance in the garden. It looked like Cecil B. DeMille had staged it for Hollywood. Add to that success the amazing work of orchestra conductor, Bob Scannell, who right from the soothing strains of the Overture was able to guide his young musicians to skillfully playing this full Broadway score of very considerable difficulty.

Meanwhile, Ms. Arnold has her young vocalists taking on challenges that are frequently operatic in scope. Mr. Paul was clearly unafraid of that challenge, and he brought fine voice and fierce passion to such numbers as, “Lily’s Eyes,” “Race You to the Top of the Morning,” and the rich “Quartet,” enhanced by the voices of Guinn, Balsara, and Lopez-Videla. Miss Brandt’s fine voice is well displayed in “The Girl I Mean to Be.” She and Mr. Paul join the full Company for the breathtaking, “I Heard Someone Crying.” Novak, Tikkanen, and Jacobson all do very well affecting a Yorkshire accent. Jacobson gives us a feisty Martha full of warmth and fun in “A Fine White Horse,” and with boyish enthusiasm, Mr. Novak first supplies a lusty and optimistic, “Winter on the Wing,” while later pairing with Miss Brandt for the merriment of “Wick.” Miss Cousins sings a bright, “Round-Shouldered Man,” and duets sweetly when Miss Lopez-Videla lends her lovely voice to “Come To My Garden.” As Act II comes to a close there is a poignant climax with Archibald confronting the ghost of his late wife, Lily, as Mr. Paul brings lashing power to “Where in the World,” an anthem to lost love. The spirit of Lily joins him in the misty glow of romantic lighting as they bring sweet delicacy to “How Could I Ever Know?” In the rich full company finale that follows, relationships are healed and the mystical power and beauty of the garden are revealed. To learn of that you must buy a ticket to today’s final performance. And don’t be afraid of the ghosts. The story warns us, “They’re only ghosts if someone alive is trying to hold on to them.”

The Secret Garden will be performed today at 2 p.m. on campus in The John Cooper School Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $15 for adults or $10 for students and seniors, and can be purchased online at www.seatyourself.biz/johncooper.

(The Courier    11.13.09)

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About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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