It would seem impossible to produce an English garden in full bloom on stage during the height of summer in the arid Boise Foothills. Yet, through the eyes of two talented young performers, that’s exactly what we see in the finale of Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Secret Garden.”
At a lightly attended Fourth of July opening, the audience experienced the hidden roses, vines and magical botanicals with 11-year-old Giovanna A. Layne as the defiant Mary Lennox, and 12-year-old Warren Bodily as her willful bedridden cousin, Colin.
The two children are at the center of director Victoria Bussert’s vision. Her production beams with warmth and heart, and the idea that the people we love who have died still have something to teach us.
Bussert’s light touch and Jeff Herrmann’s minimal sets the musical free from its usually dour Victorian tone.
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That allows the music to shine and this wonderful ensemble of gifted vocal performers to soar, accompanied by music director Joel Mercier and the orchestra. You’ll hear a mix of gorgeous voices and dialects, including the difficult North Yorkshire accent, all coached by Aled Davies.
Stephen Mitchell Brown, who gave a stunning performance as Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” last summer, returns as Archibald Craven, Mary’s reclusive and uncaring uncle, with whom she is sent to live after her parents die in a cholera outbreak in India.
Mary discovers that Uncle Archie locked up the estate’s garden after his wife, Lily, died giving birth 10 years before. At the same time he shut away their newborn son in his own wing, where Archie’s brother Dr. Neville Craven (Tom Ford ) tends the sickly lad.
Spirits haunt the manor, principally Lily (the phenomenal Jillian Kates), and the ghosts Mary brings with her from India: her parents (Neil Brookshire and Leah Jennings), her beloved Indian servants (Katie Proulx and Peter Gosik) and the other English dead.
The ghosts, beautifully costumed in grayed out Victorian dress by Charlotte Yetman, act as chorus, telling Mary’s backstory and acting out the family history.
In the estate’s gardens, Mary discovers the healing power of nature though her spunky maid, Martha (Sara Masterson) and Martha’s brother Dickon (Colton Ryan), who can talk to birds. She also meets the cantankerous gardener, Ben (the always funny Dougfred Miller).
The production offers many dynamic performances. Brown and Ford go note for note in the powerfully moving “Lily’s Eyes.” Kates’ lovely and powerful soprano is a delight whether blending with Brown’s tenor in “How Could I Ever Know” or with Warren in the tender “Come to My Garden.”
Masterson is a dynamo and she nearly stops the show with “Hold On” and “The Letter Writing Song” duet with Mary. And Ryan’s “Wick,” in which he reveals to Mary the resilience of nature, is an energetic ride.
But it all comes down to the two child performers in the cast, and these two do not disappoint.
Warren is the perfect foil for Mary with his sweet and snotty Colin. His clear, bell-like voice makes his duet with Kates a highlight of the second act.
Giovanna is deeply earnest as Mary. She throws delicious tantrums, and truly employs love to heal those around her. With her strong voice she guides the production to tell Mary’s story with a mix of raw talent, honest intentions and a strong voice that sustains throughout.
Together these two are a pleasure to watch.