Slow Burn Theatre’s exquisitely moving production of “The Secret Garden” is theatrical art that takes on the big questions. How do we survive the loss of those we love most? How can we heal? Does the beloved endure in spirit? Can sorrow finally give way to joy?
Running in the Broward Center for the Performing Arts’ Amaturo Theater through the end of the year, “The Secret Garden” is one of two musicals at the center featuring enormously talented kids. The other, “School of Rock – the Musical,” is in the larger Au-Rene Theater through Christmas Eve.
“School of Rock” is a Broadway touring production, with all the big-budget bells and whistles that implies. Slow Burn’s “The Secret Garden,” however, is like the hidden garden at the heart of the musical itself: homegrown. A realization of the vision of director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater, his talented design collaborators and a cast full of impressive actor-singers, this made-in-South Florida production of the 1991 Broadway musical by Pulitzer Prize-winning book writer-lyricist Marsha Norman and composer Lucy Simon is a true holiday gem.
Based on the 1911 children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, “The Secret Garden” centers on the journey of Mary Lennox (Alexa Lasanta), a British girl born and raised in India until a cholera outbreak leaves her an orphan at the age of 10.
Sent to England to live with her widower uncle, Archibald Craven (Michael Ursua), in a Yorkshire mansion filled with ghosts and suffering mortals, Mary is slowly transformed from an angry and defiant girl into a force who helps usher joy into the lives of her grieving uncle and his invalid son, Colin (Christo Joseph Amygdalitsis).
Mary’s own healing isn’t helped by her uncle’s brother, Neville (Matthew Korinko), a doctor who also happened to be in love with his brother’s late wife, Lily (Elizabeth Sackett), nor by Mrs. Medlock (Aaron Bower), the dour woman who runs the household with an iron fist (and who just may remind you of Frau Blücher in “Young Frankenstein” since the role doesn’t feature the performer’s glorious vocal talent).
Martha (Anne Chamberlain), a cheerful maid who serves the initially sullen Mary; Martha’s wise-about-nature brother, Dickon (Kyle Kemph); and the estate’s veteran gardener, Ben (Michael Kreutz), are the people who tend to the girl and the garden. Symbolizing regrowth and rebirth, the end-of-show embrace among Archibald, Mary and Colin elicits happy tears, and not just from the actors.
The touching, engaging story unfolds on a Michael McClain set that transforms from a foreboding place into a home touched by sunshine, where life can flourish. Lighting designer Thomas M. Shorrock provides that sunshine, as well as the shadows where spirits live and the light that makes Lily a luminous presence. Sound designer Rich Szczublewski maintains the delicate and critical balance between the singers and the seven-piece orchestra led by musical director Brad Simmons. And the costumes selected by Rick Peña, who also plays the Fakir, are a sumptuous array of period pieces from Costume World Theatrical.
As choreographer, Fitzwater gets his ghosts waltzing and Mary (plus spirits) doing a healing, irresistible Indian dance for her bed-bound cousin. As director, he has cast the show impeccably with deeply talented musical theater actors, none more so than Ursua as Archibald.
Earlier this season for another company, Ursua gave a moving performance as drag-star extraordinaire Albin/Zaza in “La Cage aux Folles.” Here, he radiates loss tempered with a growing compassion for Mary, who reminds him of his beloved Lily. His voice is a gorgeous instrument as he sings “A Bit of Earth,” “Race You to the Top of the Morning,” “Where in the World” and, with devastating power, the “Lily’s Eyes” duet with Korinko, who plays the manipulative Neville with villainous flourish.
Sackett’s Lily, stylistically an operatic soprano, has an especially touching moment as she sings “Come to My Garden” to the beloved son she never got to raise. Chamberlain radiates sunniness and encouragement as Martha sings “A Fine White Horse” and “Hold On,” and Kemph’s voice soars on his showcase numbers as the quirky, thoroughly charming Dikon. Ann Marie Olson and Michael Cartwright contribute strong vocals as Mary’s late parents, Rose and Albert, and the “Quartet” featuring Sackett, Olson, Ursua and Korinko is sublime.
The kids? They’re different and wonderful. Amygdalitsis, who played young Tarzan in Slow Burn’s “Tarzan,” makes Colin a fragile lad who has never dared hope for anything — familial love and health, especially — until Mary comes into his life. Lasanta’s Mary is feisty and difficult until, with nurturing from people in her strange new world, her self-protective behavior recedes like the snow in the spring. Her singing is lovely and, as she should, Lasanta makes the audience root for a damaged girl to find happiness.
That Slow Burn is one of South Florida’s key musical theater companies is no secret. But here’s a nonspoiler: “The Secret Garden” earns its place among Slow Burn’s best productions to date.
“The Secret Garden” is running through Dec. 31 in the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee 1 p.m. Dec. 27). Tickets cost $47-$60. To order, call 954-462-0222 go to BrowardCenter.org.