“Secret Garden” comes to Astoria Performing Arts Center on May 3 for a limited engagement. Yes, it’s a musical. And, yes, bring the kids.
The plot takes place in a lonely manor house in 1906 England. A man, yearning for his beautiful, late wife, feels neglected and isolated and blames her death on his crippled son. Then a spoiled, rich child, following the cholera-related deaths of her own parents, is sent to live with them, and changes their lives forever.
Despite the show’s dark overtones, APAC’s artistic director and the production’s director, Tom Wojtunik, said the production will appeal to children over 10 as well as adults.
“Kids can connect to the two children” in the show, he said, “and the way it’s staged. Adults will respond to grief and how we process it.”
He explained that Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote the much-loved novel upon which the show is based in 1911, and intended it for an adult readership, but said it is often “looked at as a kids’ story.”
The enduring popularity of the piece was evident from the turnout at auditions after APAC announced it was mounting the production. According to Wojtunik, 500 actors hoped to land one of the show’s 22 roles.
“We had some great options,” he said. “Actors love the show and the score. They can sink their teeth into it. And no one does it.”
In fact, the show, which features a Tony Award-winning book by Marsha Norman, who also wrote the lyrics, and music by Lucy Simon, was originally staged on Broadway in 1991, and has not had a full revival in New York since.
Perhaps the show’s many challenges are responsible for its scarcity, though Wojtunik said “it was precisely those challenges that were enticing to me. I love that the story rests on the little girl. I love the darkness.”
The show’s opening prologue has been especially difficult to stage, he said. “It is written beautifully in directness and simplicity. Everyone around the little girl dies and they become ghosts that haunt her,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
The segment, which runs nonstop for 20 minutes, is a combination of song and spoken dialogue and completely underscored. “We have to nail the tone in the opening,” Wojtunik said.
He calls the music “stunning,” saying,”in my mind, it’s so lush and romantic. I can’t think of another score like it. It is such a thrill to hear it sung live in front of me.”
In the production, the score is played by five musicians. In all, Wojtunik estimates that more than 60 individuals are involved, including the actors and off-stage personnel.
Heading the cast is 12-year-old Hannah Lewis as the young girl who finds the titular garden, releasing the magic and adventures locked inside.
“I love working with children,” Wojtunik said. “Every musical at APAC has had children. They’re naturally truthful.”
Other leading roles are played by Broadway veteran Jennifer Evans, Benjamin McHugh and Jaimie Kelton.
Wojtunik, 33, an Astoria resident for the past 10 years, originally came to New York to become an actor, but soon discovered “I was not good as an actor but I was very good as a director.”
In 2008, he took over the reins at APAC, which was founded in 2001. In the future, he would like to produce more new works at the center, which as of now presents one musical and one straight play a year. He also hopes the center will eventually have its own building, allowing for an expanded season.
APAC also hosts several free community programs, including a children’s summer theater camp (for youngsters 8-13) and Senior Stars (for performers 60 and over). All participants must be residents of Queens. Information on auditions is available on the center’s website.
When: Thurs.-Fri. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m., May 3-19
Where: Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 30-44 Crescent St. in Astoria
Tickets: $18, $12 students and seniors
(866) 811-4111, apacny.org