In February Islanders’ thoughts often turn to spring when the snowy, gray haze of winter comes to an end. Green grass will sprout, tiny buds will peek out of tree branches and yellow daffodils will bloom. But it can seem very far away.
As Dickon, The Secret Garden’s Yorkshire boy characterized by his way with both nature and words, sagely notes, “A lot of things what looks dead is bidin’ their time.”
Coming just after a blizzard, the regional high school winter musical The Secret Garden arrives at an appropriate time. The show, with its themes of rebirth, healing and the power of nature, is just the thing for the winter-weary. The show opened last night at the school’s Performing Arts Center and continues tonight, Feb. 15, at 7 p.m. and tomorrow at 4 p.m.
“The tradition at the high school is that every other year is a family year,” said first-time director Betsy Hauck, who teaches theatre at the high school.
The Secret Garden, though based on the 1911 children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is not without its darker themes. It tells the story of Mary, a spoiled 10-year-old girl living in colonial India, who is orphaned after her parents die of cholera. She is sent to live in a Yorkshire manor with her gruff uncle Archibald Craven, a man still haunted by the death of his wife Lily. Soon Mary meets her sickly cousin Colin, housemaid Martha, and Martha’s brother Dickon. She also becomes fascinated by a mysterious, locked garden that once belonged to Lily Craven. Together, the group sets out to restore the forgotten garden to its former glory and by the end of the musical, the garden is not the only character to receive new life.
The drama department chose The Secret Garden last spring. Casting took place in October and the students went into rehearsal in mid-November, the same time the crew began work on set and lighting designs.
Katherine Reid plays Mary, while Sarah Parece takes on the role of Colin. Gage Rancich lends his voice to Archibald Craven. Kathryn Antonsson and Taylor McNeely play siblings Martha and Dickon, and Lily Craven is played by Olivia de Geofroy.
“There’s so many leads in this,” Mrs. Hauck said.
The play debuted on Broadway in 1991, where it won three Tony awards. It has been produced around the world, from the West End of London to eastern Australia. Fifteen years ago it was produced on-Island by the Island Theatre Workshop, but its Vineyard connection has even deeper roots: longtime summer resident Lucy Simon, of the folk singing group The Simon Sisters (the other sister being Carly), composed the show’s music.
Reached by telephone on Thursday, Ms. Simon recalled the process of writing the award-winning show. In the late 1980s she had been approached by director Susan Schulman and lyricist Marsha Norman about composing the show. For three of the main creative forces behind a show to be women is a rarity, even now on Broadway.
“I said, ‘Well, let me write something and see if it feels right,’” Ms. Simon recalled. She wrote and recorded the music for an early number in the show, “I Heard Someone Crying,” and brought it to Ms. Schulman and Ms. Norman. They were hooked.
From there, “I just picked the moments that spoke to me that could be translated into music, like Mary finding the key [to the garden]...the emotional, important moments,” Ms. Simon said. “It was a musical offering that came out of me.”
One of the challenges of bringing the book to the stage was striking a balance between the lighthearted background of the story and the deeper themes of grief and loss. Ms. Simon addressed this by crafting folk-oriented songs for many of the children’s numbers, and weaving more complex melodies for the adults. The entire process took about a year.
“The music, first and foremost, is phenomenal,” Mrs. Hauck said. “It really is just gorgeous, gorgeous music. Very difficult, very complex.” Duets, quartets and trios abound in the score, presenting a challenge for even the seasoned performer. One song features a nine-part harmony.
“It’s like an opera,” Ms. Simon said.
“I’m very touched that school kids get into this, because it is hard to do. I’ve never been in rehearsal...where there’s not a tremendous emotional commitment to the work. It was just a lovely thing. Everybody turned into a gardener.”
That effort and commitment were on display during a recent dress rehearsal at the high school, in everything from the carefully-honed Yorkshire accents of the cast to the spacious garden set and evocative shadows of the lighting designs.
“[PAC director] Charlie Esposito has been working with students on some really cool lighting,” Mrs. Hauck said. “I think people will be pleasantly surprised.”
Live musical accompaniment is provided by Peter Boak and Ann Davey. Bob Brown worked with students on sound production, while student technical director Carl Gosselin managed the overall show.
“The kids did the majority of the work,” Mrs. Hauck said.
The production has extra significance for the drama department as it is the first year the show will be judged by the Massachusetts Educational Theatre Guild. For the past seven years, the high school has participated in the Guild’s short plays festival, but this is the first year a musical program has been added. Judges will travel to the Vineyard for Saturday’s performance, which is eligible for statewide awards. The cast and crew will receive feedback from the judges after their visit, but will not find out if they have won anything until June.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Mrs. Hauck said.