The difference between pronouncing “care” with an English accent or not seems small. “You just say it like we do, then drop the ‘r’,” says music director Joel Mercier.
But at rehearsal last week, Giovanna A. Layne, 11, said “car” in her scene with 12-year-old Warren Bodily. They started again. She giggled, caught herself, regrouped, slowed down and took another run at it, gently guided by director Victoria Bussert and Mercier.
It’s just one small challenge on this determined young performer’s path to crafting her portrayal of Mary Lennox in the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Secret Garden.” It opens this weekend and will run in repertory through August.
“The Secret Garden” is a lush musical set in Victorian England that appeals to all ages with its themes of friendship, love and redemption that revolve around the two young children.
Giovanna (called G by her castmates) and Warren, who plays her cousin, Colin, are the two dynamic young performers at the center of the production. Plucky and energetic, they bring high spirits and sunshiny dispositions to rehearsals each day.
“It’s always an interesting process when you have kids on set,” says Bussert, who directed the second national tour of “The Secret Garden.” “You have to find children who can think for themselves, who are outgoing and who are able to hold the stage and carry the scenes. We were so lucky with these two. You have all these Shakespearean actors standing around just silent. They’re (the kids) just so present. It’s beautiful to watch.”
Giovanna lives in Cleveland and auditioned at Idaho Shakespeare’s sister company Great Lakes Theater. Warren lives in Eagle and auditioned in Boise. Though both have understudies, they will be the principal performers in the roles. (In last season’s “Les Miserables,” the child performers shared their roles and alternated performances.) Giovanna and Warren also will head to Cleveland in September for the show’s run at Great Lakes.
Both kids dream of a professional career.
“I have big dreams, and I’m reaching for them,” Giovanna says. “I want to be on Broadway.”
Francis Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel “The Secret Garden” is a classic of children’s literature that, like Michael Morpurg’s “War Horse,” became popular again when its story was reimagined for the stage. Writer Marsha Norman’s and composer Lucy Simon’s musical version opened on Broadway in 1991 and became an instant hit, winning a Tony for then 11-year old Daisy Eagan. Eagan is still the youngest Tony winner in history.
Mary is a young British girl orphaned by a cholera outbreak in India. She arrives in Yorkshire, England, to live with her Uncle Archibald (Stephen Mitchell Brown) and Colin, relatives she has never met. She is at odds with everyone at first, especially Colin, who is sickly and lives his life in his bed. The two children get off to a rocky start, Warren says.
“They’ve never met another child before, and we’re both really snotty,” Warren says. “But we’re both really lonely, and we realize that we need to be friends.”
Mary meets Dickon (Colton Ryan), who tends the estate grounds, and she discovers a hidden garden that’s been neglected since Archibald’s wife Lily (Jillian Kates) died 10 years prior. Strong-willed and defiant at first, Mary softens and blooms as she learns to tend the overgrown and neglected garden. She begins to heal the lives of those around her.
The garden works as a metaphor on many levels, Bussert says.
“There’s this term ‘wick’ in the play that means if there is just one little live part in there somewhere — it doesn’t matter what kind of tragedy it’s befallen, or what roots and dead stuff are covering it,” she says. “If you nurture it, that little green sprout will grow. And there’s a great song in the show about it.”
It’s also a story about transformation, one of the musical’s central messages.
“People can change, and change a lot,” Giovanna says.
Mary and Colin overcome terrible odds along their journey. Both are abandoned by the world, just like the garden, and they find strength and comfort in each other. They also are protected by ghosts who populate the play — Lily, Mary’s mother, Rose (Leah Jennings), and other characters who have died. They watch over the children to help them find their way.
“There’s this idea that ghosts have to haunt you until they know you’re going to be OK,” Bussert says.