Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman’s Tony-winning The Secret Garden – The Musical has returned to The Chance Theater just in time for the holidays, terrific news for those as young as Mary Lennox, folks every bit as grown-up as gruff old gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and everyone in between.

garden009 Book lovers will recall young Mary, the orphaned heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, the (initially disagreeable) English girl born and raised in the British Indian Empire until an outbreak of cholera leaves only the poor, parentless eleven-year-old alive.

Sent back to England to reside with her only living relative, her mother’s widowed brother-in-law, Mary (Lindsey Campbell at the performance reviewed) 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 (Ashley Arlene Nelson), the spirited young chambermaid and her nature-loving brother Dickon (Brandon Sanchez), who introduce Mary to the titular garden, locked since her Aunt Lily’s death.

garden004 Our heroine also makes the acquaintance of her apparently sickly young cousin Colin (Holden Egdorf), confined to his bed since birth by his hunchback father Archibald (Stanton Kane Morales), 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 (James McHale), still suffering from an unrequited love for Lily (Laura M. Hathaway), 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.)

garden0010 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 crabby 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.

garden0020 The Secret Garden – The Musical made its Chance debut three Christmases ago, and proved such an audience/critical hit that it has been brought back for a second visit, its dynamic directorial duo (Casey Long and KC Wilkerson) and about half of its terrific cast intact, along with production designer Wilkerson and associate production designer Masako Tobaru’s striking sets, lighting, and projections, which transport the audience from India to England and 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.

garden0011 Campbell (who alternates with Jillian Batt in the role of Mary) is not only a budding beauty but a promising young actress whose radiant presence keeps audience sympathies with the orphaned preteen even in Mary’s more obnoxious moments. Morales and McHale provide solid support as the good-brother, bad-brother Cravens, the siblings’ memories of the unfortunate Lily inspiring the gorgeous duet “Lily’s Eyes.” (Morales’ crystal-clear tenor recalls that of Broadway’s original Archibald Mandy Patinkin.) As Lily’s oft-present ghost, Hathaway is every bit as stunning as she was in 2010, her glorious soprano making Simon and Norman’s most glorious creation (“How Could I Ever Know?) sound even more glorious in 2013.

garden0024 garden002b Tops among cast newcomers is Chance favorite Sanchez doing his finest, most charismatic work to date as the hunky, good-natured Dickon, his renditions of “Winter’s on the Wing” and “Wick” both proving bona fide showstoppers. Fellow Secret Garden newbie Nelson is splendid too as feisty servant girl Martha, quite a transformation from her rocker’s turn as Rachel in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

garden0015 Welcome returnees from 2010 include the always marvelous Chance Theater duo of Sherry Domerego, once again channeling Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers as the black-clad Mrs. Medlock, and Richard Comeau as crusty old gardening whiz Ben. New for 2013 is spunky stage newcomer Egdorf as Colin*.

Directors Long and Wilkerson keep the ghosts of Mary’s life in India ever present (they even serve as Secret Garden foliage), the sextet of cholera victims brought to vivid “life” by returnees Miguel Cardenas (Fakir), Eloise Coopersmith (Mrs. Winthrop), Rachel McLaughlan (Rose Lennox), and Robert Parkison (Albert Lennox), and first-timers Katie Brown (Ayah) John W. Scoggins (Major). (Only Coopersmith’s sudden return to life as school headmistress Mrs. Winthrop proves a tad jarring since she’s been dead up till that point.)

Under Taylor Stephenson’s musical direction, the entire cast vocalize and harmonize to perfection. I was less taken by the recent Ovation Award winner’s piano accompaniment, though I can’t say for sure whether what sounded like wrong notes might in fact have been the result of an old spinet badly in need of tuning.

garden0019 Robert Hahn’s bright choreography returns for 2013 (with Cardenas as dance captain) along with Erika C. Miller’s striking costumes and Long’s topnotch sound design. Newcomer Christopher Booher’s dramatic hair and make-up design works for both the living and the dead.  (There are thankfully no birds’ nest dos this time round.) Dialect coach Glenda Morgan Brown gets the cast speaking in mostly just-right accents, Sanchez’s proving particularly effective in his transformation into Dickon.

Teodora Ramos is stage manager. Mary Beth Adderley is executive producer and the Anaheim Public Library Foundation community partner.

Though The Secret Garden – The Musical may prove rather too intense for very young children, for everyone Colin’s and Mary’s ages and up, it makes for spellbinding, emotionally powerful holiday entertainment well worth a first (or return) visit this December.

*Jonathan Widen is Colin understudy.

Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
December 20, 2013
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.