In the past few years, I have sought out some different theater experiences to share with my son, a freshman at Orange County School of Arts in the Music and Theatre Department. We have discovered numerous venues, big and small in the OC and a bit beyond; theater is alive and kicking here in Southern California, largely due to the tenacity and creativity of our theater companies, many who partner with schools and universities. Musical Theatre West in Long Beach steps outside of their main stage productions and offers stripped down productions with their Reiner Reading Series. On Sunday, March 17, for one night only, MTW assembled an amazingly talented cast to read The Secret Garden at Cal State Long Beach’s University Theatre.
Based on the 1911 iconic novel written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, a book that every little girl read repeatedly in their adolescence, let me give you a bit of back story on this musical. It was written by Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music), experienced a big production on Broadway in 1991 with Broadway stars Mandy Patinkin and John Cameron Mitchell, lasted 20 months at The St. James Theatre, was nominated for seven Tony awards, winning three, has been produced in the West End and Australia, but never became a successful touring production. It is not produced very often, although I did have an opportunity to see it as a staged production at the intimate Chance Theatre a couple of years ago.
If you are a fan of musicals, staged readings are a wonderful way to hear a show and really absorb the musicality of it, without the distraction of sets and costumes. They are a tour de force for all involved. Actor equity rules only allow 25 hours of rehearsal time and require actors to have scripts and music in hand during the entire performance. MTW’s producing team, Michael Betts and David Lamourex accomplished an extraordinary fete with the assemblage of an incredible cast, directed by Lamourex and a terrific orchestra, beautifully directed and conducted by his mother, Julie Lamourex (a true family affair, David’s brother, Jordan, is also part of the cast).
The cast consisted of 16 talented singers and actors who gathered to pay homage to Secret Garden’s lovely and lush score. They congregated on the Thursday prior to the Sunday night performance, committing to an aggressive two-day rehearsal and staging process, much like cramming for a very important final exam. Come Sunday night, you would have believed they had performed together for years and lets just say, they nailed the final.
Jill Van Velzer, who portrayed the ghost of Lily Craven, brought goosebumps with her absolute and pure soprano, in “Come To My Garden” and “How Could I Ever Know.” When I met with Van Velzer after the performance, she spoke fondly of the overall musicality of the show, sharing that it is rare to sing such a gorgeous score in this type of arena... and sing she did, quite beautifully. We were impressed.
Her male counterparts Zachary Ford and William Martinez, who play brothers Archibald and Neville Craven, duel vocally in “Lilly’s Eyes” and truly wowed the packed theater with their strength and fortitude of voice. Yes, I whispered “wow” out loud. They were that good. Lisa Livesay’s portrayal of sweet Martha the maid and Tracy Lore’s Mrs. Medlock gave us a "Downton Abbey" feeling (the accents and manners were spot on) while Ciaran McCarthy played the capable gardener, Dickon, and Richard Gould brought to life the cranky groundskeeper, Ben Weatherstaff. Joseph Cragoe plays the sickly Colin Craven.
Louis Pardo (Fakir), Melissa Lyons-Caldretti (Rose Lennox), Caleb Shaw (Captain Albert Lennox), Jordan Lamoureux (Major Holmes), Amy Glinkas (Claire), Jackie Cox (Alice), Chris Duir (Lieutenant Peter Wright), play the ghosts of Mary’s past life in India, and provide dynamite ensemble support in the show.
The star among stars of this collaboration truly was Jaidyn Young, the 12-year-old Broadway actress (yep – Broadway – in the current production of Annie). I followed Young’s return to California on the Thursday before the show (her mom and I are friends on Facebook). With no time for jetlag, Young entered into rehearsal late that afternoon, worked perfecting her part on Friday and Saturday and delivered a brilliant performance on Sunday evening. It has been a pleasure watching this young performer mature this last year. She is on that list of “I knew her when” and a great choice for the part of Mary Lennox.
The Reiner Reading Series is part of Musical Theatre West’s mission to offer lesser known or forgotten pieces of theater to the stage and with the generous contributions of the underwriters, Ken and Dottie Reiner, The Ackerman Family and the National Endowment of The Arts, they are able to assemble Broadway-quality performers together for an unforgettable one-night-only performance, all for under 30 dollars. It is a testament to MTW’s production team to put together such a performance and offer it up lovingly to an audience of musical theater admirers, many of them fellow performers or aspiring actors. We represented one of each and enjoyed it thoroughly. Next up in the series is Kismet (June 30) and City of Angels (August 25), and I have no doubt that these upcoming summer readings will be as memorable as our extraordinary visit to the Garden.
Reiner Reading Series
Musical Theatre West