Not every musical needs to be a sweeping extravaganza.
Seeing a stripped-down version of “Sweeney Todd” in New York last year was just the “aha moment” Heather and Richie Akers needed to bring one of their favorite shows to their intimate Giving Tree Theater space in Marion.
Walking out of that 75-seat New York theater, they realized: “There’s no reason we can’t take a big title, do it well and do it small,” Heather Akers said.
Before the couple even met, they each fell in love with the music of “The Secret Garden” in their youth. Now all grown up, they just couldn’t imagine bringing such a big show to their 100-seat space. But then, who would have guessed they could pull off “Noises Off” in that space — and yet that crazy big show worked beautifully there, buoyed by lots of creative, inventive technical twists.
And “The Secret Garden,” based on the beloved book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, doesn’t have to be produced on a grand scale. The story and music are grand enough, Akers said. Their re-imagined version opens Friday (6/8) and continues through July 1.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, it’s the Tony-winning story of Mary Lennox (Ava Macek, 11, of Marion), who was orphaned in India and sent to live with her uncle and invalid cousin on their dreary Yorkshire, England, estate. Her lively, inquisitive nature begins transforming everything and everyone around her, including her late aunt’s dormant, hidden garden.
Placing actors within the audience and seating part of the audience onstage will help create an immersive experience for all. Simple furniture pieces helping to establish the story’s various settings, with “a strategically placed chair, a bed, lights and some really fun magic,” Akers said.
“That’s one thing Richie does such a cool job of. When we get busy in production week and up to tech (rehearsals), we talk a little bit, but (often) I don’t know what he has dreamed up until I see it. The first time I saw the door to the garden revealed on Saturday, not only did I freak out, but the ensemble had just made an exit. A handful of them hadn’t gotten out yet. They turned around and made a loud noise, so we actually had to go back and redo it so everybody could see it.”
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She and her husband are tag-team directing, with Richie handling most of the “blocking” — figuring out the traffic patterns of the actors moving through the space — and Heather focusing on character development.
The cast features a mix of new faces and others familiar to the local theater scene, including Greg Smith as Neville Craven, brother of widowed manor owner Archibald Craven (Conner Lewis). Both men loved Archibald’s wife, Lily (Katie Galliart), and mourn her deeply, but Neville’s love is yet another secret in the mansion, played out in the men’s anguished duet, “Lily’s Eyes.”
Children figure prominently in the show, including Macek as Mary, and Sam Shannon, 8, of Marion, as her invalid cousin, Colin Craven. Shannon actually is a girl, but she gave the best audition for the role, Akers said, and she quickly agreed to cut her hair.
“Working with Ava and Sam has been so fun,” Akers said. “It’s a huge, challenging role for the actress that plays Mary.” (Daisy Eagan won a Tony on Broadway in 1991, and remains the youngest actress to take home that prize.)
“Sometimes Ava has such a maturity that I forget that she’s just 11, and completely carrying the through-line of the show, which she does. She has such poise and thoughtful maturity,” Akers said.
“Sam is the same way. Sam is a tiny peanut. She was in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ as one of the kids, and in our Christmas show this last Christmas, but she’s never had a role this big. The joy for me is when they engage in a scene and discover something with the character that I as a grown-up maybe wouldn’t have picked up. ...
“I love the fact that the little people, while doing something completely new, are brave and trying things, and just putting themselves out there.”
WHAT: “The Secret Garden”
WHERE: Giving Tree Theater, 752 10th St., Marion
WHEN: Friday (6/8) to July 1; 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: $26, box office, (319) 213-7956 or Givingtreetheater.com
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