When it comes to Summer Stock Stage productions, I have noted previously that I always feel like I am seeing the musical theatre stars of tomorrow when I review their productions. The fact is, there are SSS alums who have gone on to perform on Broadway, including Indy natives Cory Lingner, who is currently in the cast of the hit “Carousel” and Becca Peterson who is in “Mean Girls.” My observation bears repeating because at Wednesday’s press preview of SSS’s production of “Secret Garden,” I experienced the same feeling, especially while watching Amelia Wray’s remarkable performance, as well as those of several other exceptional young actors in the show, proficiently produced and directed by SSS co-founder Emily Ristine Holloway.
“Secret Garden” is a musical based on the 1911 novel of the same title by Frances Hodgson Burnett. With book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Norman, the show premiered on Broadway in 1991. In it, 12-year-old Wray stars as precocious Mary Lennox, a 10-year-old British girl, born and raised in India, who is orphaned when her parents die during a cholera outbreak. Sent away to Yorkshire, England, Mary struggles to adapt, living with kin she has never met, including a grieving widowed uncle and a sickly cousin, in a haunted country manor house. Through the discovery of a neglected garden and with the help and friendship of a young gardener, Mary finds herself and develops a positive outlook on life.
Amelia has a twin brother Mitchell, who toured last year with the national company of ”Finding Neverland,” in which he starred as Peter. I had the pleasure of directing him as young Alexander Calder in “Calder, The Musical,” which previewed in the 2016 IndyFringe Theatre Festival and was his last local show prior to leaving Indy for his first full-time professional job. Amelia, no slouch in the talent department herself, won rave reviews, including one from yours truly, in the September 2017 Phoenix Theatre hit production of “Fun Home” that broke box office records. Afterwards, she joined Mitchell in L.A., where they both have high-powered agents and are both up for major television and film projects. Amelia’s appearance in “Secret Garden” marks her temporary return to Indy to fulfill a previous commitment to SSS, but after the run, she is heading back to California to continue pursuing her professional career.
It is a gargantuan responsibility for an actor in a lead role to carry a show. Wray was not only up to the task but she absolutely shined as the charismatic young heroine, whose strength and charm help transform the lives of her embittered uncle who can’t get past the loss of his wife and his neglected and isolated son Colin, who has given up on life. Poised, focused, blessed with superb vocal powers and dramatic ability, and employing an authentic-sounding English accent, Wray thoroughly and effortlessly inhabited her character, connecting with me and seemingly everyone else in the fully packed theater located on the campus of Park Tudor School.
Other standouts, with both actors in possession of marvelously appealing vocal tones and range, were Weston LeCrone as Mary’s tragic uncle Archibald Craven, and Sally Root as his deceased wife, Lily. Root and LeCrone’s duets of “A Girl in the Valley,” and “How Could I Ever Know?” were highlights. The best compliment I can give these two accomplished performers, however, is that even though they are both recent high school graduates, their adult characterizations were completely believable.
Also turning out strong performances were Davon Graham as Archibald’s sour, no-nonsense brother Neville, Cynthia Kauffman as Martha, a spunky chambermaid and Mary’s ally, and Keith Smith Jr. as Dickon, Martha’s brother and the kind gardener who befriends her.
Despite the overall excellence of the production, there were several distractions; one being the poor quality of the show’s sound which often made it hard to hear dialogue and song lyrics. My guest and others in the audience whom I spoke with about the deficiency, confirmed that they too had difficulty hearing. Hopefully, the technical problem, if it hasn’t already will be solved soon.
In my many years of covering the performing arts, the following has only happened a handful of times and it occured once again at this performance: Not too far into Act 2, the theatre’s fire alarm system was activated. After a brief pause, with many presumably looking around for signs of fire or smoke, members of the audience calmly made an orderly exit and then gathered in the theatre’s parking lot (along with the cast) for about 15-20 minutes until the coast was clear and they returned to their seats. Then, the show resumed at the point the play’s action stopped. It was to the audience members’ credit that they were good sports about the entire incident. No public explanation was given by theatre management for the alarm, but thankfully the only harm done was the brief interruption of the engrossing story.
As mentioned previously, one of the many satisfactions of seeing an SSS production is to witness the development of young theatre artists and no one facilitates it better locally than Holloway, co-founder Rachel Riegel and the SSS creative team, which consists of some of Indy’s most skilled artists and technicians. I look forward to the day, and I won’t be surprised, when a performer thanks SSS at the Tony Awards.
“Secret Garden” continues through Sunday, July 29. For tickets visit summerstockstage.com