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Hermantown premieres new musical version of 'The Secret Garden'

The directors of the Hermantown High School Drama Club have created their own musical adaptation of "The Secret Garden," set to premiere Thursday.

With the help of a robin redbreast, Mary Lennox (played by Elyana Hewitt) finds the key to a secret garden during rehearsal Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, for the Hermantown High School production of “The Secret Garden.” Based on the 1911 book, the production features music written by co-director Ken Ahlberg and script written by co-director Theresa Taraldsen. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Last year, in between teaching a mix of hybrid classes and finding ways to stage shows without jeopardizing their students' health, Hermantown High School theater directors Ken Ahlberg and Theresa Taraldsen decided their fall 2021 show would be "The Secret Garden." But they couldn't find a version of it that they liked.

"I've always loved the book and it has a family connection for me," Ahlberg said. "There was a Broadway adaptation of it which had beautiful music, but they changed the story so drastically that it was almost unrecognizable to me."

In the midst of everything, the directors decided they had a clear choice — write their own musical. The book is in the public domain so it is free to adapt. Ahlberg and Taraldsen hadn't written their own musical before, so they leaned heavily on pulling as much from the book as possible.

"Every word in the script is from the book," Taraldsen said. "Even in the program, we have the scenes listed as chapters instead of act one and act two. We wanted to be faithful to this book and do our best to truly bring it to life."


Archibald Craven (Trenton Paasch) and Lilias Craven (Jadyn Pierce) appear in the Hermantown High School production of “The Secret Garden” during rehearsal Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Lilias’ death and Archibald’s reaction helps form the background of the play. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The story follows a young girl named Mary Lennox, a bratty little girl who lost her parents to cholera and is sent to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven. Craven has been in a state of inconsolable grief since the death of his wife, who had cultivated a garden. The secret garden is locked away after her death, but awakens Mary's curiosity. She finds it and brings it back to life with the help of Mary's brother Dickon and her sickly cousin Colin. Along the way, the characters discover more about themselves and how to grow through grief.

For Elyana Hewitt, playing Mary Lennox has been a fun challenge.

"At the beginning, she’s very stuck up and stubborn. Then she learns to be nice and get along with people and have friends and be a normal kid after being locked up in a room for a long time," Hewitt said. "I can kind of get that as we were locked up with quarantine back at the start of this pandemic."

Hewitt said what she wants people to most take away from this show is the idea of transformation.

"We see Mary and Colin go through some major transformations, as well as Archibald," Hewitt said. "It's about not letting grief consume you."

Mrs. Susan Sowerby (Katie Taffe) tells the story of Mary Lennox’s life during rehearsal Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, of the Hermantown High School production of “The Secret Garden.” Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune


Mary gets some help changing from a cast of friendly woodland creatures, in this show represented by puppets and puppeteers. Students dressed in black act out the furry animals such as rabbits, squirrels, foxes, crows and robins.

"When you’re a set character, you have lines you deliver, otherwise you'll mess other people up," said Alee DeVlieger, a student playing Nibble the rabbit. "But as a puppet, it’s almost like improv. It doesn’t really matter, you can do whatever. You can try things and see how they work. You get to decide what you do."

As the only senior in the show, for Jadyn Pierce, the show is a bittersweet cap on her acting career at Hermantown. She's been in shows throughout the pandemic and said she's glad one of her last shows gets to be performed in-person and that it's an original piece.

"It's the first time this piece will ever be performed. No one has said these lines before. We get the chance to define these characters and make this show our own," Pierce said. "That's a pretty cool way to end my time here."

Martha Sowerby (Taryn Sibell Scheppy), a maid in the Craven house, helps an orphaned, spoiled, and rude Mary Lennox (Elyana Hewitt) dress shortly after her arrival at her uncle’s house during the Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, rehearsal of the Hermantown High School production of “The Secret Garden.” Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

For Ahlberg, the adaptation is personal. When his mother was in elementary school, she had tuberculosis and spent a year at Nopeming Sanitarium. She told him a story about how she once dropped the book on the floor and quickly leapt out of bed to rescue it before any of the nurses noticed. The facility had a rule that anything that touched the floor and couldn't be easily sanitized had to be burned.

"My mother was normally always a rule follower, but she had to rescue this book," Ahlberg said. "She just couldn't let them burn it. So it's always been an important book for my family."


The Secret Garden opens Thursday, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m. with an encore performance Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Hermantown High School theater, 4335 Hawk Circle Drive. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for students and available for purchase in advance online. There will also be a virtual viewing available Nov. 20 starting at noon. Digital tickets can also be purchased online.

Cast members in the Hermantown High School production of “The Secret Garden” take stage for rehearsal Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

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