Secrets of The Secret Garden

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secretBill Clinton may be a tough act to follow, but the cast and crew of The Secret Garden seem to be handling the Roone Arledge stage quite well – or at least they’re putting on a good show. Hannah Goldstein reports from the (secret) final dress rehearsal.

You might say the ‘Secret’ is out of the Box: the passing of Columbia Musical Theatre Society’s biannual black box show, has left the Secret Garden as this semester’s main stage production. At their last dress rehearsal before a two-night run, the cast presented a small audience (including Lucy Simon, the composer of the original score, no less) with a somewhat unconventional twist on the old classic. The performance marks the culmination of the Columbia Musical Theater Society’s long proposal and approval process that lead first-time director Mary Jo Holuba, BC ’12, to take on the non-traditional project.

Unlike the story you may remember, the show is more thematic than plot-driven. Holuba emphasized healing as the driving theme by re-envisioning traditionally inert entities as dancing people: ghosts, plants, and exotic memories take on human form and remained a constant force onstage throughout the two-and-a-half hour performance, whether shifting silently in the background or executing wild turns center stage at movements of high tension. The dancing was, for the most part, entrancing, but the presence of the dancers occasionally distracted from what plot action did occur between the speaking characters as they acted out a story about young Mary Lennox, who comes to life after the death of her parents in an unlikely garden at an English estate. Though the set was fairly minimalist and the pit claims a sizeable part of the stage space, the blocking and choreography easily filled the rest of the space, making for an interesting but occasionally overstimulating show, at least in the visual realm. The music, however, was fitting, well-executed, and effective – ironically most noticeably so when the stage was most crowded.

Talent abounded onstage. Sophomore Victoria Pollock is startlingly well-suited to lead the show; with her expressive face and body and her gentle singing voice, she plays both a pitch- and picture-perfect Mary. Leigh Gerber also performed well as the chambermaid Martha, and Emily Buttner BC ‘13, is remarkably convincing as the crippled and prepubescent boy Colin, despite actually being mobile, post-pubescent and female. These three actresses constitute a fraction of the speaking and/or singing characters. Members of  Orchesis (under the watchful eye of choreographer Mishi Castroverde) backed the cast in the aforementioned dance roles.

Holuba says she chose The Secret Garden in particular because it was the first Broadway musical “written by a woman, composed by a woman, and directed by a woman.” (Incidentally, the show’s “book” – i.e., script –  is based on the actual book of the same name authored by Frances Hodgson Burnett, a major female literary figure.) The highlights of the show offstage appeared to be Simon’s interactions with cast and crew members. Simon had read about the production and stopped by to watch, much to the emotional distress of the music director and the pit musicians. After the final curtain Simon spoke of her relationship with the show, reflecting as its “mother” and ”nurturer” and giving praise along with some general notes and suggestions to the performers. She said she appreciated this take on the show, citing the “wonderful conception of using the ghosts as a constant presence.”

She had a point. In the end, what was most memorable was the dancing – classical with a touch of modern, just like Holuba’s unique vision of the show itself. Even though The Secret Garden hasn’t been revived on Broadway since its 1993 closing, here at 115th and Broadway it took on a new life.

Purchase tickets for shows tonight and tomorrow night at TIC for $5 with or $10 without CUID.

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  1. Gardener  

    How sad that you didn't mention the name of our amazing musical director, Kasia Borowiec! She has truly dedicated herself to ensuring the music sounds amazing, and I believe she's succeeded valiantly. Here's to giving credit where credit's due.

  2. Audience  

    Hmm, I dunno about that. The vocals were heavenly, but the orchestra itself was rather grating...

  3. Kevin  

    The song "Lily's Eyes"-AMAZING!

  4. Anonymous  


  5. Kasia  

    did an UNBELIEVABLE job with music. Who knew Roone could sound ----- good?????

  6. Anonymous  

    I'm remarkably surprised that the talents of other cast members were not mentioned, namely Martina Weidenbaum (Lily). Her musical talent made it impossible for me to believe that she is a first-year. Plus, she was always completely invested in her role, whether she was the center of attention or simply gliding across the state for a brief moment. That girl's going places.

  7. Anonymous  

    I'm not sure what this reviewer was thinking...

    The dancers were distracting, especially seeing as their costumes looked more naked than garden. They were very good dancers but were often distracting to the other action.

    The singing was very good, but Victoria as Mary Lennox and Leigh as the chambermaid were the only ones whose acting was convincing.

    The presence of random, unimportant characters on the stage was very confusing. The comment that it suggested the constant presence of ghosts was not clearly communicated at all. I'm also not sure why two female chorus members were the only ones dressed differently than the others when the one character who should have been dressed differently (Mary's mother) was not. Also... why were they dancing around with picture frames?

    On the upside, the sound was clearer and more audible than I have ever heard it in Roone.

  8. Anonymous  

    The previous reviewer was obviously asleep at the wheel, and didn't read the director's note or plot summary in the program, where the presence of the ghosts and purpose of the dancer's was alluded to. You clearly don't really know what you're talking about.

    The sheer amount of talent on stage was incredible - for you to single out Mary and Martha as convincing actors but leave out Steven Helfrich as Archibald, who did a phenomenal job portraying the tortured soul of a man haunted by his deal lover, proves that you really weren't paying much attention. Judging by the acrimony of you're critique, I presume you are trying to come across as someone who knows something about theater. Funny thing is, you really don't. The choice to add dancers to the show was singled out by Lucy Simon, the writer of the actual Broadway version of the Secret Garden, as a brilliant choice. Therefore, you're pretty off base.

    Credit needs to be given to Mary Jo Holuba, BC '12, who did a beautiful job directing this show, giving it a fresh look and new life. The decision to add the dancers was her choice, and the choreography by Mishi was stunning.

    • Anonymous  

      You are right. I did not read the director's note or plot summary. However, one shouldn't have to read a director's note to understand what happens onstage. If it isn't clear to the viewer without any explanation, then it wasn't successful.

      You are right, I did forget Archibald as one of the better actors. Despite a touch of overacting at times, he was pretty good.

      Also, I never said I didn't like the dancers ever. They were a good choice (and they were excellent dancers), but they were drastically overused. There didn't need to be dancing ALL the time. I felt that they could have been onstage less and been more effective.

  9. i think  

    Steven Helferich deserves some praise. he blew my mind.

  10. Anonymous  

    Again, the lack of perspective in your opinion is obvious - the Secret Garden is an inherently confusing show, much moreso than most other Broadway productions, which are often straightforward to the point of being elementary and base. Even the New York Times review of the original Broadway production, printed several years ago, cites this fact - therefore, the confusing nature of the ghosts was not a reflection on the production team of this performance at all. In fact, kudos needs to be given to Mary-Jo, Steel, and Darcy, who took it upon themselves to put plot summaries and an explanatory note in the program, proactively trying to orient the audience to help them maximize their enjoyment. If you're critiquing the SCRIPT and SHOW itself, you need to make yourself more clear and distinguish this from a critique of this specific PRODUCTION - that would be very different from saying that this production "wasn't successful," given that they had to work with the inherently confusing, original script, and did everything they could to help guide the audience.

    Your contention that you "shouldn't have to read the director's note to understand the show" reveals that you, as a viewer, are lazy and mindless - you're assuming that all art/entertainment needs to be blatantly obvious and free of any ambiguity. Viewers who put in the effort, paid attention to the show, and read the summary, were doubtless rewarded with an amazingly fulfilling experience when watching The Secret Garden. Judging from the mostly positive buzz surrounding this show, as displayed in the Bwog article and the Spec Review, that seems to be the a majority of people. This leaves you in the minority. Your final argument that dancers "could have been used less and been more effective" seals the deal of your shaky critique, as the reality of the matter was that the dancers' presence were skillfully measured and regulated throughout the show - they came on during moments of chaos, pain, or sadness, intensifying that emotion, and left the stage during moments when the vocalists needed the audience's utmost attention. For example, the scene where Mary searches for the key - the dancers play a prominent role, handling the key and interacting with Mary as she searches. Same goes for the closing scene, where all the major figures of the show come to coordinate and bring a sense of completing. During the big vocal pieces, such as the eerie trio "I Heard Someone Crying," the breathtaking "In Lily's Eyes," and the touching Archi/Lily duet "How Could I Have Ever Known," the dancers are nowhere to be seen - the focus remains solely on the singers and their emotion alone. There were even unique hybrid scenes, where the dancers actively tell the story alongside the actors – in fact, the song “Race you to the Top of the Morning,” where Archie sings with a ballerina dancing on point next to him, falls someplace in between the aforementioned scenes and demonstrates a keen awareness of the interplay between the dancers and the singers on the part of the director and choreographer.

    This dichotomy between the busier scenes (with dancers) and the focused, haunting main songs (without dancers) reflects a directorial excellence and a keen eye to detail, both of which permeated the entire show. It's unfortunate if you could not detect this level of nuance - if you couldn't, this is less a reflection of the nuance not being there and more of an indication that you simply were unable to detect it. The production team and director and actors deserve major praise for their work, case closed - it was an amazing production, something everyone involved in should be incredibly proud of.

  11. Anonymous  

    I never said that it was just the PRODUCTION was what was unsuccessful... maybe it DID have just as much to do with the fact that the script for the show was shaky to begin with. I'm not sure why it would ever be okay for a show to be "inherently confusing"... Nuanced? Yes. Intellectually challenging? Yes. But confusing? That is never a positive thing.

    Your point that the dancers came on to represent chaos was well-taken. They were effective in the cholera scene and several other chaotic scenes. But there were also several scenes where the dancers came on in the absence of chaos and only served to draw attention away from the dialogue. For example, the scene in which the dancers were carrying picture frames. I can't remember exactly what the scene was about, but that's probably because I was trying to divine why exactly they were carrying picture frames. Anyways, correct me if I'm wrong about the scene's content, but I think that scene was a more sentimental one that would have deserved the audience's full attention.

    I hardly think that not reading the director's note makes me lazy and mindless... theatre should be accessible to the viewer. Not to say that theatre should be "elementary and base," but all the information necessary to understand a show should be present in the production. Maybe this has to do with this particular production, or maybe it has to do with the original script, but either way, I did not understand many of the aspects of this show. However, to call me "lazy and mindless," along with many of your other insults, is inappropriate seeing as it's the show that we are critiquing, not me as a person.

    • Anonymous  

      Those were not the dancers holding the picture frames... those were the dreamers. Oh, also... the character Rose (Mary's mother) was in a different costume than the two other female dreamers.

  12. Anonymous  

    this felt like a high school production... a PUBLIC high school production

  13. Anonymous  

    Is anyone else in love with Victoria Pollock? Also, I want her clothes.

  14. Why  

    was this show only wednesday thursday?!?! I wanted to see it!

  15. not impressed  

    I couldn't decide when watching it whether it felt like a high school production or a middle school one.
    And about not reading the notes in the program, they didn't even have enough programs for everyone (myself included) on the second night, when I saw it. And it's totally legitimate to hold that you shouldn't have to read program notes to understand a show. It doesn't make a viewer lazy or mindless at all to not read them.

  16. Impressed  

    I'd love to know what high school shows you saw! I've seen good ones, but never a student run production working on a $7,000 budget! Kudos CMTS

  17. Anonymous  

    As to the second anonymous poster (who seems to either have a strong allegiance to the production team or was actually ON it) instead of just INSULTING the first anonymous poster, you should learn to accept constructive criticism-it can be helpful. If you want to be in the theater business, you simply CANNOT take every single bad review personally...especially ones on a college blog. I understand that some comments on bwog can be offensive, or just plain unhelpful (ex. This show was stupid!)but the first anonymous post pin-pointed exactly what they found problematic with their viewing experience. Your reaction just came off as defensive and malicious. Don't hate on posters...LEARN from them.

  18. wow  

    Okay so first off this was not like a high school production at all. True that it was overacted sometimes, but not high school. P.S.- you guys are fighting on BWog...does any more need to be said? There is so much talent at Columbia and you're busy fighting over director's notes and programs and anonymous posters? C'mon guys! Plus, CMTS may have had a 7,000 dollar budget or however much it was but Lerner Tech took at least 90% of it. If anyone should be criticized, it's these blood-sucking mongrels. No respect for anyone: directors, actors, even both of the stage managers. Lerner Tech must be either stopped or revamped

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