The Secret Garden on the lake

I walked to the Theater on the Lake last night for their first show of the season, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake (the walk, not the show). It's smack in the dab of Lincoln Park and a straight shot down the path to Fullerton, which is marvelous when it's light out and the path is crowded with bikers and joggers, but not so much when you step out of the theater into the darkness alone at 10:15 p.m. and have a mile to go before you're home. But sometimes we need these reminders to jolt ourselves back to reality. Quickly. And never again, as they say.

It was presented by the Porchlight Music Theatre, which did a phenomenal scaled-down version of Sweeney Todd in 2004, for which they won several Jeff Awards. Theater by the Lake (honestly, that's what it's called) is kind of a small warehouse space, no-frills but comfortable enough for a $17.50 show, although the AC was cranked to the maximum maximum and the acoustics were so bad I missed at least 40% of the dialogue and lyrics. Luckily I'm not much troubled by that sort of thing and tend to catch up pretty quickly, but the first five minutes were a total blur: actors playing ghosts waltzing through a little girl's bedroom as they pass a red handkerchief back and forth, what is actually a macabre version of musical chairs where they die off, one by one, from cholera, leaving the little girl, Mary Lennox, all alone in Colonial India (it's 1906 and no, I haven't read the Frances Hodgson Burnett story, either. I see my literary education is dotted with some pretty big holes.).

Mary Lennox is then sent to North Yorkshire, England, to live with her uncle on his desolate estate overlooking the moors, also coincidentally packed to the gills with ghosts, including his dead wife Lily, whom he mourns...and mourns...and mourns in at least sixty-five different songs (oh, I exaggerate). There Mary Lennox stumbles upon her dying (or is he?) young cousin Colin and her aunt Lily's secret garden, both of which she brings back to life using some old Indian black magic in order to return love, joy, hope, and color to her uncle's lonely world.

The uncle is played by Michael Aaron Lindner (formerly the demon barber of Fleet Street), a fine actor blessed with a deep, warm, truly gorgeous voice—if you have the opportunity to see him in something, anything, take it. His wife in real life, Bethany Dawn Lindner (who played Johanna in Sweeney, which must have made things a little weird at home), plays his wife here, and is also impressive, haunted though she may be.

Each of these Theater on the Lake shows play for only five performances (Wednesday through Friday evenings), so the production values are on the minimal side, although perfectly adequate. The Porchlight players are all top-notch, and even the children didn't irritate me as much as I might have expected, children on stage being one of my seven horrors of the world, since they are by nature overly precious, precocious and unburdened with the nuances of facial expression (yeah, I get it: they're children, but I'm not forcing them onto a stage).

So if you've got $17.50 and a free evening, by all means go! Just hurry. And for God's sake, don't walk. That's my gift to you.

My second gift, from the 1991 Broadway recording: Mandy Patinkin singing about dragons!