A healthy number of first time theatre-goers filled the Montgomery Theatre for Children Musical Theatre’s production of The Secret Garden this past Friday. I was tucked back in the corner of the balcony for the 10am show (the benefits of de-employment) which held the hundreds-strong herd of rambunctious elementary school students like a corral of wild stallions. As a theatre representative/wrangler came out on stage to walk our anxious ponies through the process of being an audience member, I had to chuckle. Thirty years ago, when I was being “trained” to sit and watch a play, it took significantly shorter to go through the rules. No one had a cellphone, no one had the capability of taking a photo during the show, indeed there seemed in my day to be much more do’s than do not’s and even that used to be up to our teachers or parents, not a staff member. A full 10 minutes of grilling, quizzing, polling and instructing had even me wanting to shout “get on with it already!” But, we got there, and what a joy…
Lights, Music, Action, Faith Restored
It’s truly refreshing to witness the power of theatre on youth especially in this day and age of sound-byte driven attention spans. As soon as the lights went down, the music started up, the scenery began to move and the action started, there was a hush over the audience that any parent would be proud of and quite possibly shocked by. But, the actors had their work cut out for them.
Now, this was a polished performance by 14-20 year olds, and I can’t fault the production at all. A wonderfully detailed staging, with great voices, acting, and technical elements, I was impressed on many levels. Through and through this was as good a production as I have seen of this show. The problem lay not with the production but, with our audience. Ultimately, I feel it was a bit advanced for this particular assemblage.
I realize this book is on the reading list for many schools and so many are not wholly unfamiliar with its themes. I quite enjoy the musical myself though admittedly, I’m not a musical aficionado. And, it’s quite possible that I’ve gotten to that horrible place in life where I quite unintentionally underestimate children of a certain age but, as I watched and listened to a complex repetitious score centered around death, ghosts, and neglect, I started to feel like this might not have been the best choice for this young audience. Dark and slow-moving, this proved to be a challenge for our drove of culture hungry steeds. After 30 minutes, the crowd grew restless, and they still had another 30 minutes in the first act alone. Initial awe turned to vague interest and finally into fidget and wait.
Education and Enrichment Through Theatre
The education component of CMTSJ is to be commended. The process and transparency of that process in many ways makes up for what may have been slightly too advanced for our audience. Getting to ask questions of the actors at intermission is a unique experience that I remember getting only once in my young life (when CATS came to SF when I was 8, I remember vividly my almost uncontainable excitement of getting to go up on stage and see Old Deuteronomy up close, that make up, that costume, the warm lights; life changing!) And, great questions they were. Despite the fidgeting and apparent loss of interest, there were those who were obviously still enthralled.
A quick stretch and a visit to the restroom and we embarked on the the faster paced second act with less longing, more yelling and certainly more action which seemed to recapture our foal’s focus. And there we were, at the end, which was in fact a high note.
Overall, the show itself was a good 4 1/2 out of 5 jewels on the tiara as the majority of CMTSJ’s shows easily command. As for if this was a show for a novice audience such as Friday’s, I’d have to lean toward 3 jewels. That said, I believe at the core of CMTSJ’s admirable mission is the idea that with continued exposure and training, this audience will blossom and grow into an audience that can take on even the most complex of plots and scores. And, that is a garden worth tending.