Founded in 1912, San Antonio’s historic San Pedro Playhouse continues to thrive as The Playhouse San Antonio, whose latest production, The Secret Garden, opened February 10. It’s an appropriate piece to stage here, as The Playhouse is an impressive edifice nestled in the midst of a beautiful urban garden — San Pedro Springs Park.

Despite the verdant setting, the creative team behind this production is presenting the Tony Award-winning musical with a decidedly modern twist. Rather than the expected staging — lots of foliage and massive Edwardian sets — their approach is daringly minimalist.

Director Laura Michelle Hoadley described the genesis of this production and the reasoning behind it.

“The staging is deliberately minimal in order to provide a sharper focus on the beautiful content,” she said. “It’s all about the music and the relationships, which are certainly relatable to today’s audiences.

“There’s the little girl, Mary, who’s lost her parents and is trying to find her way with a new family. Then we have her tormented Uncle Archibald, still grieving for Lily, his late, beloved wife. There’s also his son, Colin, whom he’d been left with after Lily’s death. Colin is also gravely ill, so Archibald is tragically denied a happy relationship with his own boy.”

Regarding the design, Hoadley said, “I’ve never seen the show staged this way. I was completely floored by (scenic designer) Nick Ponting’s work, because it’s not what you expect. Since the show is set in 1905 London, you expect grand staircases, topiaries – things that are very tangible and heavy.

“Our production has a very abstract, very minimalist feel to it, which positively reinforces the emphasis on the music and the relationships. I don’t think it loses anything with the abstract approach; rather, it enhances the power of the piece.”
Hoadley has also assembled a talented and intuitive cast. “They’ve been a dream team,” she said. “They’ve got beautiful voices and they’re all very engaged. This is a show where an actor can’t say ‘Oh, I’m just a part of the ensemble,’ because every single element of this production is integral to the full telling of it. Each of the so-called ensemble members has a name. They’re very specific Dreamers, and represent very specific places in Mary’s memory. They contribute very much to the overall emotional heft of the production.”

“They also act as our crew, silently moving panels and boxes when they’re not performing. It makes the atmosphere come to life,” she added.

Hoadley has been a fan of the piece since she first saw it as a high-school student. “The music has always touched me,” she said. “The first time I saw the show, I was left sort of numb in the sense that I almost couldn’t comprehend what hit me. It was some of the richest, most moving music I’d ever heard. Musicals often get put in the fluff category, but this one is anything but that.”

“I love the story, too,” she continued. “My favorite character is Dr. Neville Craven, Archibald’s brother. He’s such a complex character. So many times I’ve heard people speak of him as the bad guy and I want to scream, ‘No! He’s the misunderstood guy! He’s the heartbroken guy! He’s the lost guy!’ He’s frustrated because he doesn’t know how to help his brother, or his nephew, or how to let go of the love he never really knew.

“It’s a joy to watch the child actors grow as their choreography gets a little tighter and they begin adding things you don’t expect them to add. Their facial expressions say, ‘I’m really starting to get it now.’ They become self-assured. They’re not so worried about their steps, their lines, their lyrics or their notes. They’re starting to get what they’re singing about, what they’re talking about.

“The adults are doing the same thing. They get caught up in their notes at first and then you start to see them realize, ‘Oh there’s another person onstage with me. That’s why I have this line! I have this line because it means something.’ They start to identify the portions that reference back to other parts of the play.

“For example, there’s a scene where Archibald is reading a letter in Paris that Mary has written him and he says, ‘Streets of Paris, like a maze.’ Well, the first half of the show has been about the maze of the garden, so he and Mary are traveling in their own mazes in their lives at this point, which is a really nice reference point they’re starting to make.”

Actor Nicholas Szoeke is making his Playhouse debut as Archibald. “I love this place,” he said. “Everyone has been so welcoming and the emphasis on teamwork and collaboration makes you want to do the very best you can.”

The vision of scenic designer Nicholas Ponting is the driving force behind the Playhouse’s staging. He described how he approached the project:

“Typically, I read the show’s script, regardless of whether I’ve seen it before, done it before or played in it before. I’ll read it without my designer hat on, just like an audience member. Then I draw or create something. Sometimes it’s just a collage of words, sometimes a painting. And that’s what I did here.

“I read the play, I listened to the music and then I painted what I saw in my head. From whatever that piece of art I make, that’s my honest reaction to the show, and then I try to design around it. I know that with The Secret Garden audiences usually expect a lot of foliage, a big old manor and lots of business on stage, but the music itself is what really drove my design. It’s gorgeous and timeless, and I wanted to find a way to highlight it by symbolizing the design rather than have the stage groaning with sets.

“So I took my first impression painting and decided to go with this pastel watercolor. There are three distinct locations we travel through; the manor, the garden and the maze. I designed those three areas with colors and textures I believe will strongly suggest them to audiences.

“This set allows for very organic movement and smooth transitions in the show. I didn’t want to have any hard distinction of locations, aside from color palettes. I wanted to leave it up to the audience to create that in their minds. And as I was working, I wondered if I could get by without a single piece of foliage on the set.

“We don’t have that many blackouts; we just have transitions. Nothing can kill a show more than having a lot of ten-second blackouts.”

Ponting’s set design naturally expanded his involvement with the director and choreographer, since it is so mobile and flexible. “This show has been a real puzzle,” he confessed. “It’s so abstract that you could do anything. I created these pieces and suggested to Laura how they might function. I didn’t give her a hard ‘This is the garden!’ because one of the things we like to do at the Playhouse is to collaborate. So there were things that others changed that I didn’t originally visualize, but I thought turned out to be better decisions.

“I think audiences are very smart and are capable of creating these worlds in their heads. I think allowing them to do so enhances the experience. In this regard, the set for The Secret Garden is like a canvas — a canvas for the imagination.”

The Playhouse’s artistic director, George Green, is delighted with the production. “The Secret Garden is a wonderful story that has title appeal. Upon seeing those words, most people fondly recall either the book or one of the films, and that’s appealing from a patronage standpoint. Laura Michelle and Nick’s fresh staging just enhances that title value for us.

“It rounds out the overall balance of the season because we have some contemporary pieces, some new work, some Disney pieces, and then this perfect show that we know our audiences will love.”

Green provided a glimpse of what’s on the horizon for the Playhouse. “We’re announcing our 2017-2018 season on February 16, which is very exciting. We have three Texas premieres; we have six productions upstairs and six downstairs (in the Cellar Theater). We have three new collaborations that we’ll be announcing on that day as well.

“This season will be one of the busiest the Playhouse has ever had,” he continued. “The infrastructure put in place over the last six months has been intended to prepare for the new ways the Playhouse will forge into the future.”

The Secret Garden opened February 10 and plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through March 12 at The Playhouse San Antonio, 800 West Ashby Place. Tickets can be obtained online or by calling the box office at 210.733.7258.

For a beautiful portrait series from the show, be sure to visit their Facebook page. Photo credit: Daniel D Baumer.

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