A sincere appreciation for Souza's ‘The Secret Garden'

| 22 Feb 2012 | 01:35

I write this in the warm afterglow of another successful Souza Scholarship musical this past weekend. And as a writer and sometime poet, I have never been known as a “man of few words.” But when it comes to my feelings about the recent run of “The Secret Garden” at the Palaia winery, I can sum it all up in just two words: Absolutely amazing! From the gorgeous backdrop of the vineyard, to Tony Ravinsky’s simple yet sophisticated set, to the soaring music and vocals coordinated by Steven Wing and Michele George, to the perfect period costumes organized by Angela Palaggi, to the skillful direction of the wonderful young cast, once again, by Maureen Burt, I could not have asked for a better theatrical experience. But it was so much more than that. In this selfless volunteer effort, many people on the production team give of themselves throughout the summer on behalf of the show and the scholarship. Producer Jan Palaggi and her family generously share their home and grounds, handling all site-related logistics and interrupting their business, as they host a bee-hive of activity for at least six weeks. The members of the Souza Committee, especially Ronnee and John MacDonald, also work tirelessly, coordinating ticket sales and handling the endless lines of theatergoers that flock to the winery’s entrance. This was the 30th anniversary production of The Robert W. Souza Scholarship for the Performing Arts, an organization formed in 1980 to memorialize a man who dedicated his life to sharing his love for music and joy in performing with his students. Continuing that tradition, Souza proudly supports shows that feature young people, on stage, in the pit orchestra, and behind the scenes as members of the production team. Over the course of last week’s four benefit performances, almost 1,000 theatergoers attended this show, garnering the scholarship more than $3,000 for future awards. Much of the money raised is given each year as scholarships to Monroe-Woodbury students from grade seven to graduating seniors. Recipients must meet Souza’s criteria of demonstrated “other-centered” service, leadership, and dedication to the performing arts. Awards are presented at various end-of-school-year ceremonies. But as to the show’s performers - a veritable repertory company for the last three summers, they continue to deliver outstanding, extraordinary performances as they grow artistically and stretch their musical and dramatic muscles. Lissette Kortright was wonderful as Martha, providing another show-stopping number. Dana Searing also gave a powerful and touching performance as the ailing young Colin Craven. New to Souza, Meghan Zwart was exceptional as Lily, with her impressive soprano voice resounding through the vineyard in “How Could I Ever Know?” among other numbers. Company veteran Ryan Ross was perfectly cast as Dickon, combining skillful vocals with homespun humor and “brotherly” advice to Mary Lennox. As Mary, Olivia Melendez gave a star-turn performance, combining youthful innocence with emerging independence in her commanding vocals. And after the powerful “Lily’s Eyes” duet between Christopher Jones and Adam LaSalle, I saw more than a few teary eyes throughout the audience. The rest of the supporting cast was wonderful as well. I say it once again: Absolutely amazing! The Souza Foundation is always looking for volunteers. Those interested should contact Bob Curtis of Highland Mills, the longtime chairman of the foundation, at bobpoet1@yahoo.com.