The Secret Garden
Book and Lyrics by Marsha Norman
Haunting, gorgeous and life-affirming
|Court Theatre presents|
|The Secret Garden|
Review by Lauren Whalen
It’s a rare story in which an average young girl is given all the power. It’s rarer that her power is plainly acknowledged by the other characters, all of whom are older and more experienced than she. Thanks to author Frances Hodgson Burnett, children’s literature has two such girls, A Little Princess’s Sara Crewe, and The Secret Garden’s Mary Lennox. Thanks to stunning direction and acting, excellent production values and new musical orchestrations, Court Theatre’s perfectly staged production of the 1991 musical adaptation is near-flawless in its empowerment of young Mary. The Secret Garden was published as a novel in 1911 and premiered on Broadway in 1991, but the Court production highlights its relevance in a society that still seeks to suppress the potential of girls and women .
In 1906, 10-year-old Mary (Tori Whaples) is living in India with her parents but mostly being raised by her Ayah, or nanny (Alka Nayyar). When a cholera outbreak wipes out Mary’s family, genetic and otherwise, she’s sent to live with her reclusive uncle Archibald Craven (Rob Lindley) and his scheming brother Neville (Jeff Parker) on the English moors. At first Mary listlessly roams around the manor, but her growing friendships with chipper maid Martha (Elizabeth Ledo) and Martha’s brother Dickon (Aubrey McGrath) open Mary’s eyes to what’s really around her: long-hidden family secrets, her own spirituality, and the lost garden of Archibald’s late wife Lily (Jennie Sophia), whose benevolent ghost presides over the action.
Court is marketing The Secret Garden as a family show for ages four and up. I don’t necessarily agree with that – eight or even nine may be more appropriate. Book writer and lyricist Marsha Norman (‘night Mother) and composer Lucy Simon infuse the source material with a dark sensibility: Lily isn’t the only ghost hanging around Misselthwaite Manor – Mary experiences a considerable amount of trauma at a very young age, and shut-in Colin suffers at the hands of his uncle’s “treatment.” Thankfully, the creators and director Charles Newell infuse levity and hope at the exact moments when necessary. The titular secret garden shines as both a living, breathing thing and a metaphor for renewed relationships, but the audience is never banged over the head with symbolism. Newell is well aware of both the delicacy and grunt work The Secret Garden requires, and his staging is executed with the utmost care and a few whimsical touches (my favorite is flautist Suzanne Gillen’s robin, who trills and flitters onstage and throughout the audience as she leads Mary to the garden’s key).
Music Director Doug Peck makes some bold choices with Simon’s music, re-orchestrating it to incorporate the Indian culture that Mary experienced before coming back to England. While some may interpret this as cultural appropriation, I see the new orchestrations as a welcome supplement to Simon’s lovely compositions, as well as enriching Mary’s character. As Ayah was her mother figure, it’s natural that Mary would carry Indian traditions in her mind and heart. “Come Spirit, Come Charm” – an Act II incantation for sick cousin Colin – is elevated to a sweet, haunting prayer thanks to the presence of Ayah’s spirit in the scene. Production dramaturg Megan E. Geigner presents a thorough yet palatable explanation of the history and significance of English gardens, as well as colonialism, that further enhances the production’s richness.
The Secret Garden has an extremely challenging vocal score, as well as an intense and demanding role for a preteen girl. Newell and Cree Rankin have assembled a robust ensemble of gifted singer-actors who display a deep understanding of, and appreciation for, this formidable story. Only Noor and Lindley are somewhat weak links: Noor strains with the boy-soprano notes and, while Lindley possesses an ethereal tenor voice, his acting isn’t quite up to par. However, the rest of the cast more than makes up for these small deficiencies. Ledo’s Martha is a perfect blend of cheerful and sympathetic, and her solo “Hold On” is less a blaring showcase (which I’ve seen in other productions), but a quietly strong monologue. Nayyar’s Ayah is expressive and lovingly maternal, and Kevin Webb brings a gravity and depth to Mary’s late father, Captain Albert Lennox. McGrath brings wonderful energy to the ever-optimistic Dickon, and James Earl Jones II is sweetly grouchy as gardener Ben. But the real standouts are Sophia, whose soprano voice is almost too flawless to be real, and Whaples, who never stoops to “overacting stage brat” level and instead gives Mary the complexities and vulnerability of a real little girl.
Don’t miss your chance to see Court Theatre’s beautifully haunting “Garden” this month – it’s the perfect way to jump-start your summer!
The Secret Garden continues through June 21st at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map), with performances Wednesdays/Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 3pm and 8pm, Sundays 2:30pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $45-$65, and are available by phone (773-753-4472) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at CourtTheatre.org. (Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Marya Grandy (Mrs. Medlock), Jake Helm (Colin Craven), Maya Hlava (Mary Lennox), James Earl Jones II (Ben), Elizabeth Ledo (Martha), Rob Lindley (Archibald Craven), Aubrey McGrath (Dickon), Alka Nayyar (Ayah), Trent Noor (Colin Craven), Jeff Parker (Dr. Neville Craven), Allison Sill (Rose), Jennie Sophia (Lily), Kevin Webb (Captain Albert Lennox), Tori Whaples (Mary Lennox)
behind the scenes
Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (music director, orchestrations), Katie Spelman (choreography), John Culbert (scenic design), Mara Blumenfeld (costume design), Marcus Doshi (lighting design), Joshua Horvath (sound design), Cree Rankin (casting), Megan E. Geigner (production dramaturg), Amanda Weener-Frederick (production stage manager), Claire E. Zawa (assistant stage manager), Stephen J. Albert (executive director), Heather Timmerman (run crew), Claudia Anderson (dialect coach), Michael Brosilow (photos)