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Pioneer Theatre Company gets its 1995-96 season off to a lyrical start with one of the most acclaimed American musicals in recent years - the Tony Award-winning Broadway version of "The Secret Garden."

The book, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is a classic, which means there is a built-in audience for this first local professional production of the musical. If all the Wasatch Front children who've read it just bring their parents, then PTC should be assured of full houses during its 2 1/2-week run.There've been at least three screen versions of the beloved tale - in 1949 with Margaret O'Brien, a lackluster made-for-TV version in 1987, and, most recently, a handsomely filmed 1993 remake with Kate Maberly and Maggie Smith.

Pioneer Theatre Company's season opener, running Sept. 13-30, is not guest director Michael Montel's first involvement with the story. He directed an opera version of "The Secret Garden" about four years ago for the Pennsylvania Opera Theatre Company in Philadelphia. (This work, adapted by David Ives and Greg Pliska, evolved during a series of workshops over a three-year period, concluding with a fully staged version.)

"But the opera presented a totally different view. All the kids' parts were played by adults," Montel said during a recent interview in the lobby of Pioneer Memorial Theatre on the University of Utah campus.

The Broadway version features a book and lyrics by Marsha Norman (" 'night, Mother") and music by Lucy Simon ("A . . . My Name Is Alice" - and Carly Simon's sister).

"The key to this adaptation (the musical) is there are a lot of events and the story can be read or viewed on many levels, but the key is to see it through the eyes of Mary, and that's what we've tried to reinforce here - her view of the world and the events that are happening."

The story is set in 1911, when young Mary Lennox awakens one morning in India to discover that her parents and virtually all of their friends and colleagues in the English compound in Bombay have died in a devastating cholera epidemic. With nowhere else to go, the newly orphaned child is sent from colonial India to reside with her brooding Uncle Archibald on his remote estate near Yorkshire.

Despite gloomy predictions that she's going to find life on the English estate as miserable as the house itself, Mary - who is watched over by a a chorus of spirits - is determined to changethings.

"There is a lot of depth in this ensemble," said Montel, who is pleased with the amazing amount of local talent. "There is a willingness and desire to lend themselves to the experience."

"Emily and Scott are easily as good as the children in the Broadway company," he said, referring to Emily Jane Stewart and Scott Fetzer, who play Mary and Colin. The two Salt Lake youngsters have a considerable amount of experience on local stages, including roles at City Rep and the Hale Center Theater.

"One big surprise was finding Victoria Mallory (Mary's deceased Aunt Lily) living here in Park City. She is exquisite!"

Mallory comes to PTC with extensive experience both on and off Broadway. She also portrayed concert pianist Leslie Brooks on the daytime TV drama, "The Young and the Restless."

PTC Artistic Director Charles Morey contacted Montel through guest scenery designer Gary M. English, who recommended her.

"It's my first time here," said Montel, "but the third or fourth time I've worked with Gary. It's a thrilling collaboration. The view we've taken is that this is a child's dream and we're constructing a dreamworld on stage.

"This show has such a wonderful air of mystery and romance - and a lot of it is very funny - and I found that in both the opera version and this, you get so taken into that world. It's a child's world, but it works on adults, too. Frances Hodgson Burnett doesn't talk down to the children."

Local performers in the cast include Margaret Crowell, Anne Stewart Mark, Mearle Marsh, Patti M. Olsen, Robert Peterson, Mark Gollaher, David Spangenthal, Dorothy Briggs Arnold, Mary Fanning Driggs, David Gordon, Ann P. Hamilton, Ashley Jarrett and Clayton R. Rockwood.

James Prigmore will be conducting a 19-piece orchestra. Also assisting with the production are choreographer Jayne Luke, costume designer Linda Sarver, lighting designer Peter L. Willardson and hair designer Cynthia McCourt.



Where, when

Performances of Pioneer Theatre Company's production of "The Secret Garden" will be at 7:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. on Fridays and at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays from Sept. 13-30. All seats are reserved. To purchase tickets in advance, call the Pioneer Memorial Theatre box office at 581-6961. Free parking is available adjacent to the building or within walking distance. The theater is located at Broadway and University (300 S. 1340 East).