Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Encore! presents "The Secret Garden" in Jerusalem

Encore! Educational Theatre Company’s most recent production was “The Secret Garden”. Based on
the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the theatre production is by Marsha Norman (lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music). This writer attended the opening performance on May 29th 2013 at the Hirsch Theatre, Beit Shmuel (Jerusalem). Robert Binder was stage director, with Paul Salter directing music. Choreography was by Judy Brown; stage design Roxane Goodkin-Levy. The New Savoy Orchestra (concertmaster: Lior Kaminetsky) provided the instrumental accompaniment.

Encore!  established in Jerusalem in 2006, stages well-known musicals as well as those less familiar to the public, also presenting concert programs on the lives of prominent Jewish composers and entertainers, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and more. Encore! is also involved in summer workshops to train children and youth in aspects of stagecraft.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel “The Secret Garden”, originally a serial in 1910, was published in full 1911.  It is considered to be one of the best children’s books of the 20th century. Several stage- and film versions have been made of it. Recently arrived from India at her rich uncle’s remote Yorkshire estate, Misselthwaite Manor, ten-year-old Mary Lennox, whose parents and nanny have all died of cholera, is spoiled, sickly and disgruntled. Archibald, her uncle and guardian offers her little consolation, having almost completely withdrawn into himself since his wife’s death. As she becomes stronger, Mary starts to take an interest in the outdoors. With the help of a friendly robin, she discovers the arched doorway into an overgrown walled garden, locked since the death of her aunt ten years earlier. Mary soon begins transforming it into a thing of beauty. There are two people who befriend Mary – the maid Martha and her brother Dickon. Dickon is unique in that he has the ability to talk to animals and is able to grow anything with a little bit of soil. The house also holds another secret, as Mary discovers at night. High in a dark room lies her bedridden cousin, Colin, a boy of her age, who is considered an incurable invalid and who believes he is becoming a hunchback (like his father). Colin has given up the will to live. Strong-willed Mary reprimands him and takes matters into her own hands. Mary’s plan is to convince Colin to love the secret garden as much as she does. By nursing the garden back to life, Mary somehow restores life to her grieving uncle and his sick son.

Once again, Encore! has brought together a large group of people of all ages, interested in being part of Jerusalem’s vibrant amateur English-language theatre scene. With children and adults from different English-speaking and non-English speaking backgrounds, some having more professional acting- and singing skills than others, Robert Binder has produced a performance that works well. Aviella Trapido, playing the gentle Lily Craven’s ghost, has a fine voice for this medium and gave a musical and competent performance. Adding warmth to the bleak Craven household, Barabara Blackston as the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, was convincing, as was Avital Sykora as Martha, the chambermaid. Dickon, Martha’s brother, was played by Hanan Leberman, a student of classical voice at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Leberman’s resonant voice and sunny stage personality made for an appealing portrayal of the kindly, simple moor boy whose personality is touched with magic. The role of Dr. Neville Craven, Colin’s uncle, and the physician treating the boy, was Robin Stamler’s Encore! debut; it was well handled, his duets more confident than his solos.  Archibald Craven was played by Michael Sacofsky. Craven suffers from ill health and acute depression; in fact he wants to see neither his house nor his son, as they remind him of his late wife. Although fairly new to the theatre stage, Sacofsky takes on this complex character convincingly.  Articulate, competent and involved, Sacofsky enlists emotion, articulacy and his well-endowed tenor voice to give weight to the major role. Of the two child lead roles, the imperious and gloomy Colin was played effectively by Sraya Goldstein, presenting the young invalid’s melancholy and the changes to his life and mood as brought about by Mary and the properties of the magic garden. Kudos also to Sapir Nachman, as the feisty and precocious Mary Lennox, for acting and singing bristling with personality, courage and real stage presence. It was refreshing to hear children singing beautifully and using their voices naturally.

There was much to commend the performance: stage sets were especially effective, with the cheerless Yorkshire moors nicely contrasted by the manor garden; the choreography (Judy Brown), though not over-challenging, worked well and uniformly. Especially impressive was the work done on accents, both Yorkshire-tainted and pure British, adding much charm to the roles depicting simpler Yorkshire folk. Choruses were lively. Crowd scenes, including people of all ages – from small children to middle-aged people – gave the performance authenticity, even if the story line lacks a little of that. The Indian- and English costumes made for a visually interesting mix. Hebrew surtitles were provided for non-English speakers. As usual, the New Savoy Orchestra, under Paul Salter’s baton, gave a highly satisfying, energetic and colorful performance, and this is no easy score to perform. Then, of course, deserving more than a mere mention, there are all the many, many people behind the scenes working together with those on stage for months at a time to put together a project of dedication, enjoyment and much togetherness. Encore’s contribution to Jerusalem’s cultural life is significant and commendable.


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