The Chance Theater puts its quality stamp on Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman’s The Secret Garden, a musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel.

Readers will recall the book’s heroine Mary Lennox, the (initially disagreeable) young English girl born and raised in the British Indian Empire, then orphaned at eleven when an outbreak of cholera kills everyone around her except poor, parentless Mary. Sent back to England to reside with her only living relative, her mother’s widowed brother-in-law, Mary finds herself stuck in the gloomy Yorkshire moorlands, not particularly welcome in her new abode, and spookily surrounded by the ghosts of those cholera victims (who serve as a kind of Greek chorus in Simon and Norman’s musical).

Fortunately, Mary does make a friend or two among the servants. There’s Martha, the spirited young chambermaid and her nature-loving brother Dickon, who introduce Mary to the titular garden, locked since her Aunt Lily’s death. Our heroine also makes the acquaintance of her apparently sickly young cousin Colin, confined to his bed since birth by his hunchback father Archibald, a grumpy sort of fellow who seems to think that 24-hour bed rest will keep his son from developing his own disfiguring hump. Archibald is aided in this peculiar treatment by his physician brother Neville, still suffering from an unrequited love for Lily, his brother’s late wife and Colin’s mother. (A very pregnant Lily had gotten it into her head to sit on a tree branch, which then broke, causing Lily to fall, go into labor, give birth, and die. Moral: Don’t sit on a tree branch if you’re very pregnant.)

Dickon informs Mary that her aunt’s seemingly dead garden is still “Wick,” i.e. merely dormant, there still being “a single streak of green inside it.” Not about to give up on her highly dysfunctional family, a noticeably less disagreeable Mary determines to return the garden to life, nurse Colin back to health, and bring about a reconciliation between her young cousin and the father he believes does not love him. (We in the audience know that Archibald in fact adores Colin, though he has a strange way of showing it—reading to the boy while night after night he sleeps clueless to his father’s attentive bedside presence.)

The Secret Garden (The Musical) opened on Broadway in 1991 and ran for 709 performances, scoring seven Tony Award nominations and winning two (for Norman’s book and Daisy Eagan’s performance as Mary), with the show’s Tony-nominated songs (music by Simon, lyrics by Norman) capturing the sound and feel of the Yorkshire moors.

Not surprisingly, virtually all aspects of the Chance Theater production reflect the quality that has become a hallmark of Orange County’s premier intimate theater over the past decade. Imaginatively directed by Casey Long and KC Wilkerson, The Secret Garden benefits immensely from Wilkerson’s scenic, lighting, and (most especially) projection design, which transport the audience from India to England, from the gloomy rooms and hallways of the Craven home to the outdoor moorlands and to the garden which will, as we can easily guess, blossom simultaneously with Colin’s health.

The cast assembled by Long and Wilkerson could hardly be better, beginning with the enchanting Sarah Pierce as Mary, the latest in a string of roles which have made her the Chance’s leading under-14 star. Paul Kehler (Archibald) and Jason James (Neville) do splendid work as good-brother, bad-brother, the siblings’ memories of the unfortunate Lily inspiring a gorgeously sung “Lily’s Eyes.” As Lily’s oft-present ghost, the stunning Laura Hathaway gets Simon and Norman’s most glorious creation, “How Could I Ever Know?”, which she sings gloriously. Kyle Cooper does winning work as the hunky, good-natured Dickon, his rendition of “Wick” a charming Act One highlight. Kellie Spill makes for a lively, spunky Martha, Dillon Klena is a fine and feisty young Colin, and Sherry Domerego nicely channels Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers as the black-clad Mrs. Medlock. Richard Comeau does his accustomed fine work as gardener Ben. Embodying the ever-present “Dreamers,” the cholera victims who have followed Mary back to England with her, are the vocally gifted sextet of Miguel Cardenas (Fakir), Eloise Coopersmith (Mrs. Winthrop), Courtney Davis (Ayah), Rachel McLaughlan (Rose Lennox), Maxwell Myers (Major), and Robert Parkison (Albert Lennox).

It’s these ubiquitous (and some of them quite scarily coiffed) ghosts that make The Secret Garden rather too intense for young children, who in any case are probably not old enough to appreciate the musical’s focus on the adult relationships only hinted at in the novel.

Under Mike Wilkins musical direction, the entire cast vocalize and harmonize to perfection, though a stronger three-piece orchestra would do their voices considerably better justice. Although The Secret Garden isn’t a dancey musical per se, the Chance production does benefit from Robert Hahn’s bright choreography. In addition to Wilkerson’s all-around sensational designs, Erika C. Miller’s striking costumes contribute greatly to the show’s classy look. Long’s sound design too is topnotch. Hair and make-up design by Julie Wilkins is mostly first-rate as well, though what’s with those birds’ nest hairdos sported by a couple of the female ghosts, even when doubling as living characters? Dialect coach Glenda Morgan Brown gets the cast speaking in just the right accents. Teodora I. B. Ramos is stage manager.

With considerable talent behind it, The Secret Garden will be weaving its musical spell throughout the holiday season. Though not quite “for the entire family” as it is billed, older children and adults will find it hard to resist its magic and mystery.

The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
–Steven Stanley
November 20, 2010
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

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