The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) continues to produce Broadway quality shows in a top educational environment. Knowing this, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I walked out of CCM’s production of “The Secret Garden” absolutely shell-shocked and overwhelmed with gratitude that we have all of this incredible talent right here on campus, and that we get to watch and support all of these incredible artists at the beginning of what is sure to be a long and fruitful career in the arts.
“The Secret Garden” takes place in early 20th century England. Following the death of 10-year-old Mary Lennox’s parents, Mary is sent to live with her only living relatives: her widowed uncle, his brother and the house staff. At least, that’s all that seems to be in the house at first arrival. The longer Mary stays and explores in the house, the more she uncovers about the family’s history, including a secret garden that is under lock and key and well-hidden.
Mary’s uncle, Archibald Craven, and his brother, Dr. Neville Craven, are constantly reminded of Archibald’s late wife, Lily, with every glimpse of Mary. Will the child be sent away? Or could she bring the family closer than ever before?
Everything about the production is extravagant, from costume designer Dean Mogle’s flowing period gowns, to the maze of staircases and stunning portraits that drop in while inside the Craven household. These creative elements provide an incredible foundation for the actors to play within Broadway’s Connor Gallagher’s direction and choreography.
Gallagher is a CCM alumni and his choreography currently can be seen on Broadway in “Beetlejuice.” There are nods to his work from “Beetlejuice” throughout “The Secret Garden” in the loveliest of ways. The pictures that Gallagher creates are nothing short of wonderful. Lily, Mary’s parents, and other spirits remain in the house the entire musical, whether that be to provide comfort and guidance or for flashback purposes. Seeing Lily linger on the steps above Mary and Archibald as they first meet gives the impression that she wants them to be together, and that she is present for that meeting as well. This just reinforces one of the key messages of the show: when your loved ones die, they are never really gone because they will continue to look out for you along your journey through life.
Madison Hagler, a senior musical theatre major, played the haunted Archibald Craven. While his character is incredibly complex and flawed, Hagler’s portrayal is incredibly honest and gentle. From the moment he sees Mary, the compassion he has for the newly orphaned girl is palpable. Hagler’s acting is matched by his gorgeous voice which soars in songs like “A Bit of Earth” and “Race You to the Top of the Morning.” The chemistry Hagler has with everyone is unbelievably real.
Also, on a more technical note, the blending of Hagler and Sam Pickart’s (Dr. Neville Craven) voices in the famous “Lily’s Eyes” was exquisite and made for a show stopping number. This level of technical vocal brilliance was again achieved between Hagler and Delaney Guyer (Lily) in the 11 o’clock number, “How Could I Ever Know” which couldn’t have left a dry eye in the house.
I have decided if there were to be a gender bent production of “The Secret Garden” I would have to play Dicken. This is completely due to Kurtis Bradley Brown’s stellar performance as the gleeful gardener. The musical is extremely heavy, as it deals with the loss of loved ones and the grief that follows, but Dicken gets to be that source of light for Mary and the audience. Brown gets arguably the two most fun songs in the show, “Winter’s on the Wing” and “Wick.” During “Winter’s on the Wing,” Dicken breathes new life into the surroundings of the gardens and makes the audience hopeful that something good is coming to the dreary lives of those that inhabit the Craven household, but this is only elevated by Brown’s bright eyed, cheerful demeanor and stunning tenor which made it nearly impossible for you to watch anyone else but him while he was on the stage.
I could gush for an eternity about every single performance, but it simply wouldn’t do it justice. Let’s leave it at this: all theatre has the power to move you and make you think. However, the best kind of theater is the kind that makes you realize you can’t live without the power of art and storytelling — that was “The Secret Garden” for me.