News Column

Unlocking 'Secret Garden'

May 9, 2013


May 09--Motherhood can change a lot of things for a woman, from how she sees the world to how she carries herself.

For Johanna Hoyt Kimball of Amesbury, motherhood has given her a new perspective on a role she first played 12 years ago. She and her husband, Derek, have three children, 8-year-old twins Samantha and Trevor and 5-year-old Bailey.

Hoyt Kimball portrays Lily Craven in "The Secret Garden," which opens tonight and runs through May 19 at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport.

"The story is more personal to her now," said Anna Smulowitz, director of the show.

"It really is a lot about mom and what it's like to lose your mother and what we carry from our mothers forever," Hoyt Kimball said. "I have a different perspective on that now, having experienced motherhood and being a partner to someone.

"I feel like I sing the music in a new way, or certainly experience in it a new way."

"The Secret Garden" is a Tony Award-winning musical based on the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. With book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, it premiered on Broadway in 1991.

While many remember the story of Mary Lennox, a young orphan who discovers a neglected garden, as a classic children's tale, the musical changes some of the plot details and puts more of an emphasis on the adult characters of Lily; her widower, Archibald; his brother, Dr. Neville Craven; and her sister, Rose, who is Mary's mother.

"In the novel 'The Secret Garden,' there is mention of those people who have died, and the musical really takes those characters and really incorporates them into the story," Hoyt Kimball said. "There are very often ghosts floating around the stage."

"The themes might be difficult for very young children," Smulowitz said, who added that the story is timely in light of the recent Boston Marathon bombings.

"In my day, one would not allow children to go to the funeral and experience it," she said. "Today, it seems very difficult to spare children from sad things. It's almost impossible to keep them in the dark.

"So, you might as well help them understand it, and that's what this play does."

After Mary's parents are killed during a cholera epidemic in India, she is sent to England to live with her uncle, Archibald, and her young, sickly cousin, Colin. Lily, Colin's mother, died soon after childbirth, and the musical focuses on "learning how to go on after someone has passed," Hoyt Kimball said.

"A lot of it is the house coming alive again," she said.

The title garden that Mary discovers and rebuilds is the centerpiece of the family's own rebuilding.

"The garden is very key to reclaiming yourself," Smulowitz said.

Smulowitz, who has been presenting dramas and musicals in the Newburyport area for the past 34 years, says she wanted to revisit "The Secret Garden," which sold out its four-week run in 2001, simply because she loves the show.

"Next to 'Les Mis,' it's my all-time favorite musical," she said. "The music of this story is some of the best music I've heard anywhere.

"I listened to the score in getting ready for this show 15 times. It just kind of sticks to your heart."

Like "Les Miserables," "The Secret Garden" is a music-driven show, with much more singing than dialogue.

Hoyt Kimball said her favorite song is the quartet she sings with Rose, Archibald and Dr. Craven.

"It's very dense musically," she said. "I think all of us who sing that piece would agree that it's our favorite."

"The Secret Garden" also features Jeff Bowden as Archibald, Tom Lloyd as Dr. Craven and Elise Roth as Rose. Katherine and Caroline Hall split the role of Mary, and Joseph Hall and Liam Bixby share the part of Colin.

"Each of the four children who share the roles of Mary and Colin, I can't say enough about them," said Hoyt Kimball, who is a music teacher at Cashman Elementary School in Amesbury. "They truly carry the show."

Hoyt Kimball's two daughters are also part of the cast.

"It's been really cool to watch them learn the music and just get a taste of what you get when you get the theater bug," she said.

The Hall children's father, Eric, is co-producing the show with Alan Schutz. The production team also includes musical director Brian Nickerson, vocal director Allyn Gamble, choreographer Linda Zirin and projections designer Rich Beatty. Mary Hall, Eric's wife, is in charge of costumes, props and photography.

"The costumes are elegant, exquisite," Smulowitz said. "The play will remind people of 'Downton Abbey.'"

If you go

What: "The Secret Garden"

When: Tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 11 and 18, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 12 and 19, at 2 p.m.; and Wednesday, May 15, and Friday, May 17, at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for members and seniors, and $15 for students.

More information: 978-462-7336 or


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