Review: The Secret Garden at Colonial Players

TheatreBloom rating:

When I was younger I read the book The Secret Garden. A few years later I watch the movie when it was released so I was very excited to get to see the musical adaptation of the story. Walking into the theatre at The Colonial Players of Annapolis I was transported by the stage decorations, painting, and lighting of their production of The Secret Garden with Book and Lyrics by Marsha Norman and Music by Lucy Simon. Unfortunately, that was where the excitement for the show ended. The show was uneven in tempo, talent, music and vocal levels, and blocking leaving one disappointed reviewer walking out of the theatre at the end of the night.

Kevin Cleaver (left) as Doctor Neville Craven, Lindsay Espinosa (center) as Lily, and Justin Ritchie (right) as Archibald Craven in The Secret Garden
Kevin Cleaver (left) as Doctor Neville Craven, Lindsay Espinosa (center) as Lily, and Justin Ritchie (right) as Archibald Craven in The Secret Garden

Director Lois Evans and Music Director Wendy Baird gave it a valiant try in this production but as a whole missed the mark. From the beginning of the show the pacing was dragging and the cast lacked energy and enthusiasm. Being theatre in the round it is important to be conscious of every seat in the house, however during this production many moments were blocked in such a way that parts of the audience saw the backs of heads for entire scenes. In a space so intimate one would imagine that it would be acceptable to not mic the actors singing, however, the balance between the music and the actors singing was so uneven that every time an actor turned away from my seat I lost what they were singing.

Choreographer Carol Cohen created basic movements for the actors on the limited stage space that fit with the music but lacked the luster of magic that one thinks about when one thinks of the story of The Secret Garden. Another fatal flaw in the show was the lack of consistent talent. There were several very good actors on stage but more than a handful of weaker performers who did not measure up by comparison. The overall impression it left me with was one of a quick show put together without a complete thought of the impact of every element of the show.

Ella Green (left) as Martha and Madi Heinemann (right) as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden
Ella Green (left) as Martha and Madi Heinemann (right) as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden

There were some nice stand-out elements, however, that are well worthy of praise. Costumes, designed by Jean Carroll Christie and the Costume Crew, were well done and period appropriate. The play on the white color scheme for those who had passed on and were now existing as ghosts being a nice touch. The Projection Design was also well done and the way it was used on multiple locations around the theatre was an equally nice touch.

One issue I had with the direction, and not the projection, was one of the more “magical” moments in the show when Martha is opening the windows in Mary’s room for the first time. As Martha goes to each window location the projections appear on the walls exposing a view outside from the window. This happened twice, then Martha opens a third window and there is no projection reveal in that location, however that is where the director places Martha and Mary to look out the window and into the gardens instead of making use of the great projections that were created for the show.

As I said mentioned, the Set Decoration (which surrounds the audience and is crafted by Scenic Designer Laurie Nolan) makes you feel like you are inside the gardens. The set and floor painting (achieved by Mary Butcher and Kaelynn Miller) were nicely done and the lighting used for the production (compliments of Lighting Designer Eric Lund) enhanced these elements. On the other hand, the lighting did not enhance the action on stage. More times than not, actors were singing or talking in light one moment and then they would move into a darker location and there would not be a light shift to follow them. This was bothersome because for a space of that size there are enough lights hanging that there should never be that issue. Furthermore, it felt like the audience was lit up more than the cast for most of the show as I could see the expressions on everyone around the room, including the sleeping couple across the stage from my seat.

(L to R)  Samuel Edward Ellis as Dickon, Reid Murphy as Colin, Danny Brooks as Ben Weatherstaff, and Madi Heinemann as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden
(L to R) Samuel Edward Ellis as Dickon, Reid Murphy as Colin, Danny Brooks as Ben Weatherstaff, and Madi Heinemann as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden

Madi Heinemann as Mary Lennox must be given credit for hard work and dedication to perform such a large role at her age, being on stage for the majority of the production Madi’s stamina never falters. Cristina Shunk as Mrs. Medlock is quite a joy on stage. Lindsay Espinosa has an operatic voice that fills the space whenever she sings as Lily Craven. Danny Brooks brings a light-heartiness and humor that is much needed to the show as Ben Weatherstaff. Justin Ritchie is well rehearsed as Archibald Craven. But the stand-out among the cast is Kevin Cleaver as Dr. Neville Craven. His voice is resonant and his portrayal of the character makes you want to like and hate him at the same time. Special mentions need to go to Reid Murphy as Colin Craven, Ella Green as Martha, and Samuel Edward Ellis as Dickon, all of whom are a pleasure to watch interact on stage with one another as well as the other actors.  Rounding out the cast were Aubrey Baden III, Kaitlin Fish, Heather McMunigal, Kory Twit, Greg Anderson, Cory Jones, Kyle Gonzalez, Erin Branigan, and Kaelynn Miller.

This production of The Secret Garden was one of the biggest disappointments that I have seen on stage in a long time and personally I have struggled with writing a review that does it justice while at the same time being true to what I saw on the stage. It was very shocking to see such a production from The Colonial Players of Annapolis as their work is of some of the highest quality around for community theatre. In the end I have to be honest about the production, it just didn’t have the “magic” that The Secret Garden should have and it did not live up to the reputation of The Colonial Players of Annapolis.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

The Secret Garden plays through May 8, 2016 at The Colonial Players of Annapolis— 108 East Street in historic Annapolis, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 268-7373 or purchase them online.


3 thoughts on “Review: The Secret Garden at Colonial Players”

  1. I just read this review and Mr. Nunemaker makes the show sound catastrophic. My children and I saw the show the first Saturday after it opened to see my wife and their mother, Cristina Shunk (Not Cristina Shuck) play Mrs. Medlock. So yes, there is some bias here. I noticed a few of the things Mr. Nunemaker pointed out, i.e. no projection for the third window in Mary’s room and lights not following the actors. Both of those are easy fixes. However, the point made about the audience seeing the actor’s backs will happen from time to time (it is after all theater in the round), especially when the “ghosts” are focused on someone in the middle of the floor.

    I would also like to point out that I find it hard to give this review much consideration, especially when the writer does not spell the actor’s name correctly (programs are provided with the names in it and there is a website as well) and it appears the review was not reviewed by someone else or spell check was not used (Ella Green and Martha).

    I’m not sure what Mr. Nunemaker was expecting when he watched the show. The show is theater in the round and not on a stage facing the audience. Again, the points made are easy fixes. But, to say “This production of The Secret Garden was one of the biggest disappointments that I have seen on stage in a long time and personally I have struggled with writing a review that does it justice while at the same time being true to what I saw on the stage” is, I believe, way too harsh a criticism for this show.

    1. Thanks for the quick note about spelling fixes, even the most apt of typists make mistakes- and those are easy fixes, which we’ve fixed. I believe the point Mr. Nunemaker is trying to make is that yes it is theatre in the round but the way they are handling certain scenes is giving the audience more “back of heads” exposure than is usual in this space. A reviewer can only report on the performance of the evening that they see it and if the things that were seen that evening have been since fixed, then they’ve been fixed. We’d like to point out that everyone is entitled to an opinion, not everyone’s opinion is going to be the same. No one should take any review- a glowing review, a constructive review, or otherwise- as hard golden rules to judging a performance as all reviewers are simply stating their informed opinions on what they witnessed. If, unfortunately, it is the opinion of the reviewer that this is one of the most disappointing things seen on the stage, especially given the caliber of work that is usually witnessed on the stage, the reviewer is entitled to have that opinion.

  2. What a review. Based on the audience response on the evening I attended this wonderful production no one else seemed to have the same experience as Mr. Nunemaker.

    In my opinion, the two other reviews in DC Theatre Arts and Bay Weekly have it right. This is a stunning and magical show and you should definitely see it. Get your tickets though because according to the website some of the remaining performances are already sold out. Not bad for such a terrible production.

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