By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
The Black Swamp Players have stepped out of their comfort zone in staging “The Secret Garden.”
The musical, beloved by many including director Cassie Greenlee, sprawls across two continents, with the main setting a rambling mansion with many rooms, many haunted rooms and gardens, including the secret one of the title. The musical also stretches from the real world deep into the world of memory, populated by the spirits of the dead. These are characters with haunted hearts. And the musical relies heavily on its songs to tell its story and express the sense of longing, loss, and hope.
All and all, a challenge, to fit onto the modest stage at First United Methodist Church. But the Players do a splendid job and demonstrate why the show is beloved by its fans. “The Secret Garden” opens tonight (Friday, Feb. 16) at 8 p.m. and continues this weekend with shows Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. and next weekend with evening shows Feb. 23 and 24 and a matinee Feb. 25. For tickets click. http://www.blackswampplayers.org/
The show begins with a lively party in India, where British officers and their wives are celebrating while our heroine Mary (Zoe Cross-Nelms) is in bed upstairs. Soon cholera will serve to make her an orphan (the preferred state for children in such stories).
But Mary’s parents (Keith Guion and Melanie Moore) aren’t making early exit, rather they and the rest continue to haunt the stage, forming a kind of Greek chorus in dazzling white as Mary is shipped back to England to live in a gloomy mansion with her gloomy Uncle Archibald (Nathan Wright)
The house has secrets. Archibald is also in mourning for his wife and sister of Mary’s mother, Lily (Megan Meyer) who died 10 years before.
And Lily as well continues to haunt those she left behind.
Mary’s disposition – she was apparently always something of a pill – does not improve with this change of scenery. Indeed, it seems designed to make it worse. A spoiled, waited-upon child, she’s now left fend for herself.
But the housemaid Martha (Lorna Patterson) provides some loving guidance, and the maid’s brother Dickon (Quintin Bouillon) introduces Mary to the joys of nature and gardens.
Also, in the house is Colin (Eli Marx), Archibald’s son. Lily died in childbirth from injuries sustained in an accident in the garden. He is kept in isolation, deemed too sickly to survive long, and treated by another uncle, Neville (Daniel Cagle) who has given up his medical practice to devote himself to the boy’s care as well as managing the mansion. His ministrations seem more aimed at keeping the boy an invalid than curing him. Colin has come to believe in his own infirmity.
All this plays out with plenty of melodrama and melody well executed by the cast. (As is the case when attending a dress rehearsal, the crew was still adjusting volume levels for the actors with marked improvement in the second act.)
Cross-Nelms is the focal point of the show. Her tantrums are fierce, but shaded by sadness. And she can turn it on at will as she does on a visiting mistress (Robin Cagle) from a school where Neville wishes to ship Mary. She uses it to help bring Colin out of his shell. Her joy is just as intense.
Bouillon’s beaming Dickon brightens up Mary in each of their encounters and brings smiles to the faces of the audience in the process. He embodies the earthy, optimistic nature of the wise-beyond-his-years country boy.
As Lily, Megan Meyer provides a strong, riveting voice, and a warm nurturing nature that extends beyond the grave as she is finally able to comfort her son.
The Players have drawn talent from the region and Bowling Green State University for the production.
That includes recent BGSU graduate Wright, who is impressive whenever he takes the stage. His performance as the Man in the Chair in “The Drowsy Chaperone” was one of the very best I’ve experienced in a campus production. That was largely a non-singing role. Archibald gives him a chance to display his ample vocal and acting skills. As good as the rest of the cast is, the level ticks up whenever Wright takes the stage. His “Where in the World” is heart-breaking.
The Players have also enlisted BGSU student Logan Maccariella as music director leading the five-piece pit band that ably provides the musical undertones for the singing.
Local talents also make their appearance. Cagle offers a nuanced Neville, not a villain, but a conflicted man, which comes out in the song “Disappear.” He does well to hold up his part singing “Lily’s Eyes” with Wright. Keith Guion shows a strong voice as Mary’s father, and Lane Hakel, is gruffly amiable as the caretaker Ben Weatherstaff. Lynette Cooley, a regular in local Shakespeare productions, plays the dour Mrs. Medlock, who seems to have absorbed the bleakness of the mansion into her bones.
All contribute to a production that makes a trip into the Players’ “Secret Garden” worth the time.