The Secret Garden sat on the bucket list of Red Mountain Theatre Company’s Executive Director, Keith Cromwell, for a number of years. A script that features half a cast alive and the other half dead, explores themes of grief and hope, draws on British and Indian culture, and requires various dialects is challenging enough. However, after contemplating the show, Cromwell slated it for the season’s spring slot, which traditionally casts a large number of young artists. He had seen the show in previews before it opened on Broadway and reflected, “After seeing the show on Broadway and on tour, I thought it was a beautiful and yet complicated show. I took the chance to untangle that knot during our 2016/17 season, which coincides with the shows 25th Anniversary.”
Early in the planning process, patrons and sponsors alike recalled reading the timeless novel during their childhoods and showed great interest in the production. Managing Director Jennifer Jaquess said many RMTC donors have strong emotional connections to the show; they performed in it as teenagers or it was the first show they saw as a child with their parents, and they passionately loved the music.
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
– Aubrey Hepburn
Red Mountain Theatre Company (RMTC) has a robust education program in addition to producing six full-scale musicals each season. The organization’s spring show is a unique opportunity for budding artists, as it’s selected based on having several age-appropriate roles for students between the ages of six and 18. Past shows such as Into the Woods, Band Geeks, Little Women, and now The Secret Garden have been successful both at the box office and in meeting the organization’s mission to engage, educate, and enrich the community. Master Classes taught by RMTC staff and local university and studio theatre professionals are offered to young actors before each rehearsal. The Secret Garden’s young cast members have benefited from classes in British dialect, care of the voice, acting technique, and technical aspects of production. Perhaps the greatest lessons are learned as the young actors work alongside professionals and are expected to uphold protocol and work through rigorous rehearsals six days per week.
RMTCs Conservatory currently has 84 students, seven of whom were cast in The Secret Garden. Katie Holmes, the Director of Conservatory as well as Music Director of The Secret Garden, has been charmed by the many similarities between the thematic elements of the show’s message and the path of the young artists she works with. In admitting children as young as six to the Conservatory, she often sees a student with a quiet spark hidden beneath the surface that may take years of care and nurturing for the artist within to blossom. Occasionally, she laughs, a child will even require some careful “pruning” to break off old habits that are interfering with their best performance.
The Secret Garden has prompted exponential growth for the young actors as they’ve worked on dialects, period mannerisms, and the differences between British and Indian cultures alongside the demanding libretto. RMTC’s production includes seven teenage ensemble members, along with Conservatory students Sadie Patton (Mary), Jordan Graham (Dickon), Chase Cowart (Collin), Aidan Alford (Martha), and Hannah Culpepper (Ayah). Anna Bella Foster shares the role of Mary with Miss Patton, performing on alternating nights throughout the run. “The kids have been plugging away and working diligently and cheerfully on their tricky spots,” Holmes said. “Every day, Jordan’s and Aidan’s Yorkshire accents get better and better. Every day, Chase’s harmonies get better and better.” Holmes knows that “they’ll keep tending to their roles every performance,” because “every day deepens their commitment to the show.” And given this careful tending, every day the kids and adults alike get closer to “realizing the full beauty of the show.”
In addition to auditioning for RMTC’s professional shows, students of the education programs are offered chances to work with some of New York’s hottest choreographers, directors, and musical directors. Through workshops, master classes and concerts, students have worked with and performed on RMTC’s stages with many Broadway greats — including Jason Robert Brown, Eden Espinosa, Carolee Carmello, and, most recently, Norm Lewis.
Cast member Jordan Graham has been a student of the RMTC Conservatory since he was nine years old. Now seventeen, Jordan is preparing for the role of Dickon. When asked how a 21st century tech-savvy teenager could possibly relate to characters living in the early 20th century, he quickly quipped, “They dealt with their own set of problems just like young people do today!” Jordan identifies with Dickon’s respect for all living things and sees a parallel between the lyrics of “Wick” and his journey as a performing artist. He recalled a time when he felt performing was something he enjoyed, but the spark wasn’t fully realized until after years of honing his craft. It was during a moment of a duet he performed with Broadway’s Eden Espinosa on RMTC’s stage last year that he knew he wanted to pursue performing as a career. Graham has since felt strongly that theatre can and does change people for the better.
Birmingham is proud to lay claim to Rebecca Luker, who originated the role of Lily. Luker grew up in Birmingham, which was also home to legendary actors Nell Carter, Fannie Flagg, Courtney Cox, Louise Fletcher, Wayne Rogers, and Kate Jackson. RMTC Alumni include Jordan Fisher of Teen Beach Musical and Grease: Live! and Morgan Smith, known as the perky red-headed “Wendy’s Girl” in national commercials for Wendy’s restaurant. At any given time, RMTC Alumni can be seen on stage in national tours of Broadway musicals, on television shows, or in national commercials.
RMTC has a long history of partnering with other Birmingham businesses, and The Secret Garden has provided exceptional opportunities. The transformation of the garden is designed by the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and Birmingham’s Notinee Indian Dance Troupe is providing authentic interpretation of Mary’s memories of India throughout the staging of the production.
When asked why he’s so passionate about working with young artists, Cromwell said that art is the place where all barriers can come down and that perhaps it’s because the healing of his own broken childhood was found through working in theatre. As a young man, he realized theatre was the place where he was accepted, where he fit in and found reception in simply being himself. He wants to offer that to others because, as he says, “That’s a beautiful place to be. That’s nirvana.”
Red Mountain Theatre Company proudly celebrates the 25th Anniversary of The Secret Garden along with Samuel French and applauds Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon on the continued success of their work.
“Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.”
– Maria von Trapp