‘Secret Garden’ blossoms in the desert

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

 ‘Secret Garden’ blossoms in the desert“Stay here in the garden, where loves grows free and wild. Come to my garden — come, sweet child.” If this promise seems too good to be true, world-weary travelers need only witness Community Light Opera and Theatre Association’s “Secret Garden” to believe in nature’s power to restore peace, health and hope.

This classic Victorian tale of loss and redemption is presented by a cast that reveals the deep pool of talent in our community, starting with the unbelievably convincing Amy Ertl as young Mary. As our guide through the complex emotional and spiritual journey, Ertl draws the audience into her unhappy childhood that starts with being rejected by a vain mother and left to be raised by the native servants in their home in India. After Mary alone escapes the cholera epidemic that claims the lives of both her parents, along with their servants and most of their friends, she is sent to England to live with her Uncle Archibald.

But the literal and figurative cold of Misselthwaite Manor offers little in the way of comfort to the newly bereaved Mary, let alone to the long-held wounds of her uncle.

Although Kevin Anderson has shifted in recent years to a mostly behind-the-scenes presence as the creative visionary behind Ridgecrest Musical Enrichment Society’s productions, he has no trouble reminding the audience of his unparalleled command in front of the scenes as the tormented Archibald. Together, Anderson and Ertl breathe heart-wrenching realism into their tumultuous attempts to cultivate a blossoming within their own languishing hearts.

The power of this adroit cast is fully demonstrated early on in “I Heard Someone Crying,” where the exceptional vocals of Ertl and Anderson are joined by a rich ensemble performing as the ghosts of Mary’s and Archibald’s pasts. Particular standouts here are Britney Brown as the etherial ghost of Archibald’s beloved wife, Lily, and Phillip Randolph as Mary’s devoted father, Albert.

But life is not entirely dreary at Misselthwaite. Bringing much-needed levity to the story is Beth Cosner as Martha — the folksy Yorkshire servant whose charisma and candor bombards Mary’s steely exterior, planting what might be the very first seeds of friendship in our young heroine. Watch for Cosner’s powerful delivery of “Hold On,” which shows she is as adept in dramatic delivery as she is in comedic.

Mary is further befriended by the gruff, but tenderhearted, old gardener Ben Weatherstaff — played by the always impeccable Ben Bockhahn, who once again adds spectacular dimension to a supporting character and provides glorious texture to our story.

On the sprawling grounds of Misselthwaite, Mary also meets Martha’s brother, Dickon, who seems to have a connection with nature that transcends human existence. Played to perfection by Larry Cosner IV, Dickon helps Mary fully embrace the gentle healing process that comes from the wholesome goodness of being in the outdoors — and in the company of true friends.

Mary’s primary antagonist is revealed in Dr. Craven, Archibald’s brother and steward of Misselthwaite. Larry Cosner III portrays a complicated man nursing his own grievances and finding a focal point for his frustrations in young Mary.

Despite mounting tensions, Mary continues to thrive even as her search for the elusive “Secret Garden” continues. Act I culminates in a series of storms that reveal more secrets of Misselthwaite — including the presence of Mary’s cousin, Colin, whose very existence has its own part to play in the mysterious gloom that hangs heavily over the entire manor.

It must be noted here that 10-year-old Kenny Anderson, who portrays Colin, exhibits a natural stage presence that can only partly be explained by two prior generations of performers, on both sides of his family, who have been delighting CLOTA audiences for decades. Kenny’s pure voice and unyielding performance are an even match for the seasoned veterans he shares the stage with.

And speaking of veterans, amid these storms are the vocal high point of the show — a duet between Archibald and Dr. Craven. In “Lily’s Hazel Eyes” we get a deeper insight into the conflict that haunts the inhabitants of the manor. But despite the unresolved conflict between the brothers, the soaring vocals of Anderson and Cosner unite to carry the audience to an emotional pinnacle that is as beautiful as it is painful.

While the ghosts of the past help carry the story forward, and provide critical historical context, this device also carries with it a challenge for the viewer in discerning the current action from the co-mingled memories. But the show would be much poorer without the portrayals of the chillingly selfish Rose (Celese Sanders), the maternal Ayah (Brianne Hardwick, and the mystical Fakir (Alex Tellez), and many others.

Director Barbara Roberts must be acknowledged for the inspired cast and crew she assembled to deliver this stirring performance. In addition to the convoluted requirements of the script, Roberts is limited to an intimate space in which to tell so complicated a story. However, she and her team use the two-tiered thrust stage to good effect, employing minimalist sets and quick scene changes.

Musical director Jordan Covert has worked wonders with an intricate score. The ensemble shines in numbers like “Come Spirit, Come Charm,” where familiar western musical themes are seamlessly blended with eastern elements in a dazzling rendition led by some of the youngest members of our cast. (The acting chemistry between Mary, Martha, Dickon and Colin is also on great display here.)

In addition to leading the cast to exemplary execution of an extremely demanding score, Covert has arranged the orchestrations into a quintet that highlights the talents of Lee Alan Nolan (piano), Erica MacArthur and Deanna Inez (violin), Steve Fleischer (viola) and Emma Heflin (cello).

The show continues tonight, July 8, at 7:30 p.m., with additional evening performances held July 14, 15, 21, 22 and a 2 p.m. matinee on July 16. Seating at CLOTA Center Stage is extremely limited, but tickets for remaining shows are available for $20 each at Red Rock Books.

There is a moment in the story when Archibald attempts to explain what happens when people die. In his response, we see that even a mature rationalization is still, in the end, limited to the human perspective. This story offers a loftier view of the passing of life — that maybe our loved ones are somehow with us on that journey to the garden. And no matter how long it remains locked and neglected, it takes only one persistent act of love to reawaken it.

Story First Published: 2017-07-08