New to the Windy City theatrical landscape, The Lake Forest Theatre is a freshly renovated, 309-seat venue, staged at the John and Nancy Hughes Theater in the northern suburb of Lake Forest. The inaugural season began recently with The Secret Garden playing this summer, Young Frankenstein scheduled to haunt the fall and A Chorus Line ringing in Spring 2017. I found it curious all involved would select such a quiet and little known show for their debut. While the show did garner a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical in 1991, I found the tale of an orphan girl, guided by well-intentioned haunted spirits to her estranged family, something that wouldn’t necessarily come to the top of my mind as an auspicious debut for a new venue. The book and lyrics by Marsha Norman were based on the melancholy 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Artistic director, Steve Malone, spoke before the performance I attended about his “vision” and “passion” for the details of the piece. While they may have gotten many of the minor superficial details spot on, overall, the staging fell flat, the pacing pointedly slow and overall, Secret felt disjointed from start to finish. This Garden certainly needed a voracious pruning.
The story itself follows a young orphan girl named Mary Lennox (Kailey Albus and Carly Meyer) whose parents were killed in a cholera epidemic. As she returned to England to reside with her Uncle Archibald (Edward Fraim) Craven at his vast estate, Uncle Archibald hardly welcomed the child with open arms. He is also ardently emotionally stuck, stagnant within his own grieving process over the loss of his wife of ten years, Lily (Michelle Jasso) and equally troubled by his sickly, bedridden son, Colin (Zachary Fewkes). Adding to the estate’s overall feeling of despair, a cruel sub-plot involving Archibald’s brother, Doctor Neville Craven (Edward MacLennan) who gave up his once promising career as a doctor to tend to his nephew’s medical needs, although his intentions are far more financial then familial. While exploring the grounds of her new home, Mary discovered a magic garden full of well dressed ancestral spirits who guided her along a path to a dour free life. The stage itself is overcrowded by these well dressed (costumes by David Lundholm and Joanne Seaman) and well intentioned garden spirits. Their repetitive, circular choreography suggested they travel in tandem on the wind, but this recurrent visual grew quickly tiresome. While their vocals were methodically lovely, Lucy Simon’s music and orchestrations sounded piped in, as though the cast were singing to track instead of with the lush, 15 piece live orchestra. An issue I hope immediately addressed before the time Young Frankenstein stomps into Lake Forest in the fall. David Geinosky’s scenic design was tepid at best, more accent pieces then a full set.
The largest positive for this pedestrian debut is the only way to go creatively is up. The theater itself is lovely and the surrounding community truly ravenous for good works. However, their suburban competition is downright formidable. With the Paramount Theater in Aurora, The Writer’s Theater in Glencoe, Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook and the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire presenting dynamite and truly inventive restaging of classics, including the valiant West Side Story, masterful Company, spine-tingling Deathtrap and the magnificent Man of La Mancha, Lake Forest Theatre is going to have to quickly regroup and rethink to stay competitive. You have to do more than “show up” when you are putting on a show to succeed in today’s jam-packed marketplace. The Secret Garden had the superficial going for it, remarkable costuming and lovely harmonies, especially during “Lily’s Eyes,” but painfully little else was cultivated to support it. This Garden had “dashes” of color, but as a whole, it never solidified. It played more like individual “Flower” than a luminous “Garden.” When an orchard doesn’t have a rich and solid foundation, little tends to sprout or grow. Lake Forest Theatre’s The Secret Garden, sadly, never blossomed.
Lake Forest Theatre’s The Secret Garden is now playing through July 2, 2016