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'The Secret Garden' ready to bloom at Corn Stock

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There was a time that Pam Orear didn’t think “The Secret Garden” would stage well under the tent at Corn Stock Theatre.

Now, with the musical ready to open Friday at 7:30 p.m., she is happy she agreed to direct it in the unique tent venue in Upper Bradley Park.

“Originally, I wasn’t sure about doing it at Corn Stock because of the set I originally wanted to have. But I completely restaged it and I’ve changed my mind about it. It has turned out to be a great venue for this musical,” she said.

“The story is so subtle, with a lot of emotional moments. You can see so much of what they are feeling on their face when you are that close to the performers. Because of that, the intimacy is really nice,” she added.

“The Secret Garden” is based on the 1911 novel of the same name written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The musical’s book and lyrics were written by Marsha Norman and music is by Lucy Simon.

The musical tells the story of Mary Lennox, a young English girl who is orphaned at age 11 and sent to live with relatives she has never met. She brings new life to that family as well as to a neglected garden.

Songs from the show include “There’s a Girl,” “I Heard Someone Crying,” “Lily’s Eyes,” “Lift Me Up,” and “How Could I Ever Know.”

While the songs themselves may not be as well known as songs from other musicals, Orear said it is the music that drew her to “The Secret Garden.”

“I have always loved the score. It is so masterfully crafted. And I loved the story of The Secret Garden before I ever heard the music. So, as an artists, I always wanted to put it on stage,” she said.

For the second time in three years, Corn Stock has brought in a professional actor who got his start in Peoria to perform in one of its summer offerings. Two years ago, Steve Vinovich starred in “The Foreigner.”

This time, Bart Shatto, a native and graduate of Bergan High School and a professional actor with several Broadway credits, will portray Archibald Craven. He was recruited by Orear, who after seeing “The Secret Garden” on Broadway knew she wanted to direct Shatto in the show.

“He is a professional, but he is also very humble. He’s warm, he’s excited to be here working on this show with this wonderful cast. Bart doesn’t see himself as any better than anybody else and the cast doesn’t treat him any differently than anybody else. They all have worked very hard together to make this a wonderful show, and it is,” Orear said.

She wanted Shatto because several pieces in the show are lyrical, almost operatic, and she knew he could handle the music. “It is difficult music, which may be one reason it isn’t done in community theatre very often,” she said.

“But I’ll tell you, there is not a weak link in this cast. I knew every character must be played by a strong singer and I got lucky. There are a lot of trained, beautiful voices in this show. We have a lot of young talent,” Orear said.

 Other performers include Faustina Hoerdeman, making her Corn Stock debut as the young Mary Lennox. Katie Speiden portrays Lily, Kaden Micklos is Colin Craven, Holly Haines is Martha, Tyler Smith is Dickon, and veteran actor Mike Reams portrays Dr. Neville Craven, the character who is most unliked in the play. “And nobody does unlikeable better than Reams,” laughed Orear.

“All of these actors capture their characters so beautifully. I couldn’t be happier,” she added.

Other performers include local stage veterans Helen Engelbrecht, Gene Bourke, Bob Parkhurst, Pauline Parkhurst, Aaron Elwell and Jenny Parkhurst.

The dream dancers are Sophie Challacombe, Randee Blickenstaff and Sydney Abdnour.

Tamra Challacombe, a local dance and ballet instructor, choreographed the show and Andrea Molina, a professional musician Orear got to know through Bradley University, is the music director and conductor of the 10-piece orchestra. “She is a skilled musician who understands voice. The cast has learned much from her,” she said.

Orear designed the set and lighting herself. “You will see that I used isolated lighting and character color symbolism to tell the story. Without big sets and a large acting arena, this seemed the most creative way to do this,” she said.

“The Secret Garden” run Friday through July 18, starting at 7:30 p.m. each performance. Tickets are on sale at the Corn Stock box office for $20 for adults and $15 for students. They can be purchased online at www.cornstocktheatre.com or ordered by calling 676-2196.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).