The Belfast Maskers is doing what the midcoast theater group has done for more than 30 years — tackling challenging material and creating theatrical magic with local talent.
Its summer production of the musical “The Secret Garden” is a visually lush, beautifully acted piece, lovingly presented to the community like a fragrant bouquet. But as hard as the company tries, it cannot overcome the flaws in the script, which focuses too much on ghosts and grownups and too little on the children.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel is a beloved classic about Mary Lennox, a girl torn from her home in India after her parents’ deaths and transplanted to the English countryside to live with an uncle on the Moors. The girl unearths many secrets at the manor, including a bed-ridden cousin and a walled-off garden, from which the novel took its name.
This musical version of the story, with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, premiered on Broadway in 1991. New York Times theater critic Frank Rich said in his review that: “‘The Secret Garden’ favors theme over story, as if it were a learned essay about the book instead of a new version that might speak for itself.” Despite that apt description, Norman won a Tony award for best book for a musical.
Maskers’ director Erik Perkins cast the production with some fine local talent, including Eric Sanders as grieving widower Archibald, Scott Anthony Smith as his physician brother Neville and Sarah Hughes as Lily, the woman both men loved. Their strong performances and beautiful voices help lift this production above the mediocre material.
It is the children that give “The Secret Garden” its charm and finest moments. Marina Bannister is convincing and delightful as the lonely and displaced Mary Lennox. Her transformation from spoiled and demanding brat to independent gardener is wonderful to watch. This young actress gives a performance as fine as the more seasoned adults in the cast.
Walden Merkel Cutting as Mary’s cousin Colin and Chris Hayes as free spirit Dickon are convincing in their roles, but both need to slow down and articulate more precisely so theatergoers can better understand them. Both actors perfectly bring to life Burnett’s boys.
The cast member who best captures the spirit of the book is Scott Taylor as aging gardener Ben Weatherstaff. He brings to the stage the humor and elation of Burnett’s story that the musical’s creators lost. He is a joy to watch.
In addition to directing, Perkins designed the multi-pieced set that includes a rotating revolve. One side of the set pieces are three-dimensional and look like the stone walls of the garden. On the other side are rooms inside the dark, unwelcoming mansion.
The costumes, designed by Linda Marie, are equally beautiful. They set the show squarely in the Victorian age. Which class each character belongs to is immediately signaled by the clothes they wear.
The sets, costumes and lighting design by Dave Fournier are exceptionally fine and make this show a feast for the eyes. Perkins’ attention to these details make this production of “The Secret Garden” visually perfect.
One place the Maskers skimped on (and shouldn’t have) was in the number of musicians used. The score requires an orchestra of 15 players that is heavy on the strings and brass. By using just a keyboard, percussionist and woodwinds, music director Deb Fournier lost the richness of the music.
A story about renewal and revival was a great choice for the Belfast Maskers after the group last summer bought the former Universalist Church at 17 Court St., built in 1839. The building has been named the Basil Burwell Community Theater, nicknamed “The Bazz,” after the maskers’ founder.
The company, which performed in different venues around town after losing its waterfront home in 2011, has been working to insulate the building so productions can be mounted in the winter months. It also should consider either opening windows or adding fans to circulate air in summer. The theater was stiflingly hot during Saturday night’s performance.
Despite the flaws in the script, the Maskers deserve applause for tackling such a difficult and complex musical. The casting and technical execution of “The Secret Garden” prove that the company can again be a shining jewel of excellence in Maine’s community theater scene.
“The Secret Garden” will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Basil Burwell Community Theater, 17 Court St., Belfast. For more information, visit belfastmaskers.com or call 207-619-3256.