Technical issues and a triple-digit fever could not stop the weekend visit to “Secret Garden” at the historic Ruffin Theatre.
The theater’s audience joined the classic tale’s characters, including orphaned Mary Lennon (Lilly Kozlowsky), sickly Colin Craven (Rachel Brown), and reclusive/elusive Archibald Craven (Tim Brown) as they learned to apart, overcome, and live again.
With a little otherworldly assistance, of course.
The show began with a bit of audience interaction from groundskeepers Dickon (Justice Mack) and Ben Weatherstaff (Jeremy Armstrong). The pair requested a measure of courtesy from guests to Misselthwaite Manor: Silence those interpersonal communication devices (borderline witchcraft); no photography or “recording” of the tale (despite fantastic advances in such technology); and, above all else, please leave no refuse in the garden…er, theater.
That garnered a few chuckles from the audience as the house lights darkened just behind schedule. When the center stage grew bright, we found the ghost of Lily Craven (Jessica McCullough) dressed in gleaming white on an ivy-strung swing. The melodious notes of “Opening Dream” lilted through the air, a beautiful invitation to come along on the journey of a poor young girl.
The end of the first ensemble number brought us to our first (and most recurrent) technical issue of the performance: The volume of Mary Lennox. Kozlowsky’s microphone would intermittently fade. This would, at times, leave her voice overpowered by those of the rest of the cast or the soundtrack. However, Kozlowsky made her character’s feelings well-known through her body language and facial expressions. At times, these became priceless and absolutely necessary to keep tabs on Mary’s feelings throughout the tale.
A simple set design - two rotation stands placed downstage left and right, four double-sided wallettes, one of trees, one of paintings; and a centered backdrop - called for some offstage assistance. Projectors shone along the left and right wing walls on occasion: As young Mary traveled by train to Yorkshire, as we watched Archie and Lily enjoy a dance in the ballroom, as all entered a garden reborn. These images lent a sense of the fantastic to the settings and helped to instill a sense of wonder, especially at that garden.
Microphone issues aside - though they continued throughout the play, including some instances with the ensemble that seemed to leave voids in the vocal range - the songs and vocals of the cast easily helped convey the storyline to a waiting audience. Especially to those of us who last read the tale (slightly-more-than) some years ago. Certain pairings, such as Tim Brown and McCullough, harmonized wonderfully, their pitches and vocal strengths complimentary in every aspect. During a time of working order, Kozlowsky’s voice rang true as the trio performed “I Heard Someone Crying.”
Also of note: The trio of McCullough, Rose Lennox (Carmen Martinez), and Albert Lennox (Jordan Wells) during the reprise of “A Bit of Earth.” Their harmony proved quite pleasing to the ear, each supporting the other to create one whole for the piece without sacrificing quality of their individual sounds or the strengths of their characters.
Other pairings did not fair quite so well, such as Brown and his on-stage brother, Neville Craven (Dustin Troxel). Troxel’s microphone experienced some issues during rehearsal and possibly fell victim to another malfunction during his arrangements with Brown. While his spoken dialogue came across clear, especially in his scene with Kozlowsky as he promised to send her far from the manor, his vocal arrangements seemed under powered when paired with Brown.
Another moment of consternation came not from the action, but rather from behind a piece of the scenery during Ben and Mary’s introduction, just before we finally met “our Dickon.” As the wallettes needed to move quickly, quietly, and easily across the stage, they sat on casters, which left a slight clearing between their bottom and the stage. One could easily see the shoes of those who helped rearrange scenes and shift sides between interior and exterior faces, not uncommon.
However, it can be a great distraction from the scene’s action when one of the assistants decides to dance as he or she awaits a change. Tree Three, stage left: I mean you. Clear throughout the dialogue and “It’s a Maze,” feet not still more than a moment or two. While no great shakes in the grand scheme of things and not detrimental to the story, it took attention from those in the spotlight.
On that note, two performances deserve extra notice.
The first: Martha, played by Aubrey Zurhellen. She commanded each scene in which she took part: A clear, strong singing voice combined with her brogue and the temperament known to go with it!
Whether she haphazardly helped Mary get dressed, chased her charge across the stage, or sang a charm to help her young master get well, Martha’s character and presence added great charm to the cast and Zurhellen did her great justice. May she get her white horse.
The second: Colin Craven, or more the actress behind him, Rachel Brown. During intermission, I mentioned to McWilliams that Rachel’s microphone dropped her vocals but kept her dialogue clear and strong. I then learned Rachel performed that day, and I suspect others, with a 102-degree fever. She was later diagnosed with the flu.
I reminded myself of that as she walloped her nurse with a pillow and screamed. And as she engaged in a juvenile battle of stubborn wits (repeatedly) with her cousin Mary. And as she proved to her on-stage and real-life father she no longer needed the wheelchair. Kudos, Rachel.
You can still catch “Secret Garden” at the historic Ruffin Theatre Feb. 22-24. Show times are 7 p.m. Feb. 22 and 23 and 2 p.m. Feb. 24. Tickets cost $10.