You’d think that theaters in search of grown-up entertainment for the entire family would be jumping at the chance to program Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman’s musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel The Secret Garden. 709 performances on Broadway, seven Tony Award nominations and two wins (for Norman’s book and Daisy Eagan’s performance as Mary). And as if that weren’t already enough, Norman’s book pays as much attention to the novel’s adult characters as it does its children while show’s Tony-nominated songs (music by Simon, lyrics by Norman) capture ever so gorgeously the sound and feel of the Yorkshire moors.

You’d think that this would be true, but you’d be wrong. The Secret Garden hasn’t had a big stage L.A.-area professional production for over a dozen years, all the more reason for Musical Theatre West to add it to this season’s Reiner Reading Series, a one-night-only event that not only brought Burnett’s classic story to unforgettable life, it did so after a mere twenty-five hours of rehearsal.

Readers will recall the book’s heroine Mary Lennox (Jaidyn Young), 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 Archibald Craven (Zachary Ford), 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 (Lisa Livesay), the spirited young chambermaid and her nature-loving brother Dickon (Ciarán McCarthy), who introduce Mary to the titular garden, locked since the death of her late lamented Aunt Lily (Jill Van Velzer). Our heroine also makes the acquaintance of her apparently sickly young cousin Colin (Joseph Cragoe), confined to his bed since birth by his hunchback father, 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 (William Martinez), 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.)

Under David Lamoureux’s exquisite, deceptively simple direction, The Secret Garden bloomed lushly indeed without aid of expensive sets, elegant period costumes, or complex lighting.

It helped immensely that musical director Julie Lamoureux and a ten-piece onstage orchestra provided instrumental backup you’d expect to hear in a fully-staged production.

It helped even more to have a proverbial dream cast assembled to give audiences this once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Sadly, there’s to be no encore for this Secret Garden.)

One of MTW’s many strokes of genius was to bring back SoCal’s very own twelve-year-old triple-threat Jaidyn Young from her current gig, standing by for Annie (and three of her Hard Knock Life orphan chums) in the current Broadway rival of Annie no less. With a heavenly voice presaging great things ahead and the stage presence of a performer two or three times her age, Young brought Mary Lennox to richly complex life before heading back to the Great White Way.

Ford and Martinez have been wonderful before, but perhaps never as memorably so as good-brother, bad-brother Archibald and Neville, the siblings’ memories of the unfortunate Lily inspiring “Lily’s Eyes” … and the evening’s longest, loudest applause and cheers.

They don’t come any more breathtaking than Van Velzer as said Lily’s ghost, the statuesque beauty making it crystal clear why neither brother could forget her, Van Velzer’s bewitching soprano turning Simon and Norman’s most glorious creation, “How Could I Ever Know?”, into the evening’s most tear-inducing number.

McCarthy’s infectiously good-natured Dickon, Livesay’s feisty, utterly appealing Martha, Cragoe’s splendidly spunky young Colin, Tracy Lore’s Mrs. Danversesque Mrs. Medlock, Richard Gould’s wise and wizened gardener Ben, and Louis Pardo’s exotic-piped Fakir were terrific each and every one, as were Melissa Lyons Caldretti (Rose Lennox), Jackie Cox (Alice, Mrs. Winthrop), Chris Duir (Lieutenant Peter Wright), Amy Glinskas (Claire), Jordan Lamoureux (Major Holmes), and Caleb Shaw (Captain Lennox), the ever-present “Dreamers,” the cholera victims who have followed Mary back to England with her.

Director Lamoureux made the savvy decision to stage The Secret Garden as a cross between concert and staged musical, a concert staged reading which placed the focus on story, songs, and above all performances, making this “reading” its very own unique pièce de théâtre. From having The Dreamers perform a ring-around-the-soon-to-be-orphaned-Mary as one by one they took their seats, leaving poor Miss Lenox the sole survivor of “the cholera,” to having the upstage black curtain backdrop open at last to reveal a garden-green backdrop on Mary’s first sight of the heretofore Secret Garden, these were just two of Lamoureux’s various strokes of genius. Having the entire cast garbed in black except the statuesque, russet-haired Lily in satiny gray was an equally inspired costuming choice.

Sharing behind-the-scenes credit were Reiner Reading Series producers Michael Betts and [David] Lamoureux, stage manager Guillermo Parga, sound engineer Alex Jordan, crew chief Ben Karasik, executive director/producer Paul Garman, production manager Mary Ritenhour, and others too numerous to mention. Series underwriters are Ken & Dottie Reiner, the Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation, and the National Endowment For The Arts.

With The Secret Garden proving just how vividly a concert staged reading can recreate a musical’s magic without expensive accoutrements, this reviewer looks forward to the Reiner Reading Series’ upcoming Kismet (minus 1001-Nights Arabian finery), and the ultimate challenge, City Of Angels without the black-and-white vs. color sets and costumes  it’s hard to imagine its doing without. If The Secret Garden is any indication, Musical Theatre West’s Reiner Reading Series should be up to the formidable tasks ahead.

University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
March 17, 2013

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