July of 2017 offered a very special moment for me. I had talked to the chairwoman of our Board of Directors about what would be needed to direct at Hershey Area Playhouse. I knew that we needed directors for our 2018 season and I mentioned I was interested in venturing into directing a show. It was in July that I was told that I had been chosen to direct the first show of our 2018 season, The Secret Garden.
Musicals in our community are quite popular, even more so when child actors are involved. I knew I had to do my research and I was lucky to have a phenomenal mentor to work with on the process as I tackled a new task. The Secret Garden was a musical I had never seen before, so my research included watching clips from Tony Award segments from the original Broadway production, which paved the way to rediscovering one of my favorite songs from the show. Something I had completely forgotten about as I was introduced to a variety of different musicals and productions.
The original Broadway soundtrack for the show soon became the main thing I would listen to as I started planning. As auditions approached, I knew that I had very specific ideas about voices I wanted for each character, especially for Mary Lennox. I knew that whoever I cast in the role needed an inner strength to carry the show, something that may not be easy for a child to do. I made it a point to cast a child in the children’s roles, while creating a children’s ensemble for those added voices. As talented as everyone was, it was the children of the show that made it shine.
I was extremely lucky to have a talented young woman named Riley Keenan playing Mary and a talented young man, who was making his theatre debut, named Noah Chetlen as Colin. Noah brought such an innocence to the role of Colin that was easy to sympathize with his health worries and the neglect he faced from his father. Riley was a powerhouse, both vocally and acting, as Mary. She blew me away when she auditioned, and it was such a pleasure to help mold her into an extraordinary leading lady. As I said, she had to basically carry the show as it went along, because the primary journey in this show was hers.
One of the things that struck me about the show is that very journey that Mary was on; that all the characters were on. Reading the script and listening to the music, it was hard to sympathize with many of the characters. To simply read lines and lyrics, it is easy to think about how selfish characters are, but it’s subtle nuances that are brought to characters by the actors that make you feel for them. The grief, sorrow, and loneliness is suffocating in the right hands, that you feel yourself releasing a breath of relief as you see these characters grow.
Ultimately, I think that’s why this show strikes such a chord with people. Mary is used to a very specific way of life, which all changes when she loses her parents and finds herself alone. Colin is effectively an orphan, even with his father alive. Archibald and Neville are both caught in their own grief over a lost love. All of these characters are searching for something they feel is unattainable. People, at one time or another, have had that feeling. We’ve all dealt with grief and loss in some way. This show spoke to people on a very emotional level. Each night it was performed, the audience was brought to tears over the heartbreak and beauty of the production, because they could empathize with the heartache and the loss these characters felt.
The music from this show created an atmosphere from the opening scene that took the entire audience on a journey of heartache, love, discovery, forgiveness, and acceptance. In a story that seems to revolve around a garden, what it truly revolves around is finding inner peace and love after facing tragedy and upheaval. The journey of the characters to finding a new life together is truly the secret garden they were all searching for.