THE SECRET GARDEN theatre review

The Peach State Summer Theatre (PSST!), produced by Valdosta State University (VSU) on their campus in Valdosta is in the midst of their 20th Anniversary Season of professional summer theatre, presenting three musicals in rotating repertory: Irvin Berlin’s White Christmas, Disney’s Mulan, and the Lucy Simon/Marsha Norman musical The Secret Garden.
This theatre group was known for the first 15 years as the Jekyll Island Musical Theatre and this publication had the opportunity to publish reviews of many of the outdoor productions between 1990 and 2005. After years of surmounting the challenges of heat, rain and mosquitoes, the theatre moved to the Valdosta campus, was renamed the Peach State Summer Theatre (PSST!), and became the Official Musical Theatre of the State of Georgia. As much as the Dual Critics love the great outdoors, we are personally happy about the move indoors from a professional standpoint, where greater artistic control is possible, and actors aren’t dripping with sweat throughout the show.
We renewed our relationship with VSU by attending a production of The Secret Garden and found that Valdosta has maintained its standard of outstanding casting in its productions. Auditions are open and attract some of the best talent on the East Coast.
The musical is based on the children’s classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett and is the story of orphaned Mary Lennox (played to perfection by 13-year-old Hannah Trowell). As the show opens, Mary is living with her parents in India. After their death during a cholera epidemic, she is sent to England to live with Archibald Craven, her widowed uncle. Mary is selfish, spoiled, lonely, and willful. She finds her uncle’s magnificent mansion holds a number of secrets including an invalid cousin and a secret garden, locked and abandoned, that was the pride of Archie’s deceased wife, Lily. Mary makes it her mission to restore the garden to life.
We have seen five productions of this musical over the years, and while all were excellent, the current PSST production was especially beautifully staged and sung. The scene design by R. Keith Pugh featured a background of large Greek columns, with backlighting that changed color from time to time. Moveable furnishings were used to create other settings, including Mary’s bedroom, a Paris apartment, and, of course, the interior of the garden.
The costume designs by Esther Iverson were colorful and captivating. Many of the scenes included men in red military dress, contrasted with women in flowing white dresses, while Mary, the servants, and Archibald were dressed in Edwardian fashions that reflected their social status.
Randy Wheeler directed this production, and we recall seeing his production of this musical at Jekyll Island twelve years ago. This one is even better, due to the advantage of more creative lighting and technical aspects made possible by the indoor setting.
Jacque Wheeler created the exciting choreography that blended the intrigue of India with the mysteries of North Yorkshire, England. The complex and hypnotic music, under the musical direction of Michael Elliott, was mesmerizing. This is a musical that truly grows on you, and you appreciate it more and more each time you see it.
The role of Archie Craven is a showcase role and Andrew Edward Thomas Jr. gave a breathtaking performance with his marvelous voice. Equally impressive was Megan Wheeler, as the spirit of the deceased Lily who is always lingering somewhere on this wonderful set. A crowd favorite was Katie Whalley as Martha, a simple housemaid with a terrific voice. Dave Sucharski, as the sinister Dr. Neville Craven, has one of the best voices we have heard in this role. His duet with his brother Archie in “Lily’s Eyes” was truly a gem.
Harris Milgrim was a very animated Dickon (Martha’s brother), who helps restore the garden. Liam Bickerstaff, who played Colin, reminded me of Harry Potter; I think it was the glasses.
A special treat for us Jacksonville folks was seeing Lukas Cyr as one of the British officers. Mr. Cyr is a recent graduate of the Jacksonville University Theatre program and someone who we saw many times in a number of demanding roles on the JU stage.
Also in this energetic and enthusiastic cast were Misty Barber, Terry Snead, Renita James, Kaitlyn Peace, Caleb Jernigan, Stephanie Peterson, Shelby Nichols, Andrew Keeler, Robert Stetson, Jenna Marie Tummino, Rachel Boone, D. J. Grooms, Jonathan Butts, and Ashley Noel.
The three summer shows are in rotating repertory until July 18. Performances for The Secret Garden are on July 6, 8, 10, 13, 16, and 18. With a little planning, you can see two different shows in one day, by combining a matinee performance of Mulan with an evening performance of a second show. And with a little more planning, you can make a real vacation of your theatre trip, since the popular Wild Adventures Water and Theme Park is also located in Valdosta, which is about a two-hour drive from downtown Jacksonville.


april, 2022