BWW Review: THE SECRET GARDEN Needs Nurturing
The Secret Garden
Book and Lyrics by Marsha Norman, Music by Lucy Simon, Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Directed by Caitlin Lowans and Weylin Symes, Musical Direction by Jim Rice; Choreography, Kelli Edwards; Scenic Design, Charles Morgan; Costume Design, Paula Peasley-Ninestein; Lighting Design, John Eckert; Sound Design & Engineering, John Stone; Props Master, Elizabeth Rocha; Production Stage Manager, Margaret Kayes; Dialect Coach, Charles Linshaw
CAST (in alphabetical order): Andrew Barbato, Rishi Basu, Nancy E. Carroll, Christopher Chew, Kevin Cirone, Jennifer Ellis, Dashiell Evett, Kevin Fennessy, Jenney Dale Holland, Alex Johnson, Tess Primack, Matthew Eamon Ryan, Brigit Smith, Robert St. Laurence
Performances through June 8 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA; Box Office 781-279-2200 or www.stonehamtheatre.org
The Secret Garden is a beloved novel published in 1911 by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The timeless story about the healing power of love was adapted for a Broadway musical in 1991 by Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music), winning Norman a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical and the Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony for its eleven year old star Daisy Eagan (the youngest recipient in that category and second youngest overall). In the role of orphan Mary Lennox, Stoneham Theatre's production features a budding star, eleven year old Brigit Smith of Wakefield from the theater's the young company.
The story is set in 1906 and begins in India where Mary awakes one morning to find that her parents and everyone she knows in the English compound have died of cholera. She is sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven (Kevin Cirone) in his 100-room mansion in Yorkshire, England. A brooding hunchback enveloped in grief over the death of his beautiful wife Lily (Jennifer Ellis), Archie has little to do with the girl and leaves her care to the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Nancy E. Carroll), maid Martha (Tess Primack), and the rest of the house staff. The neglected child discovers a neglected garden and determines to find a way to revive the forbidden floral arena, ultimately bringing new life to everyone at Misselthwaite Manor and restoring joy and purpose to her own life.
With the themes of healing and rebirth playing over and over, The Secret Garden ought to be uplifting, but it is dragged down by death, darkness, and pessimism. The beautiful, lush score is what I like best about the musical, but not even Simon's soaring compositions can overcome the sluggishness of the tale. The directing team of Caitlin Lowans and Weylin Symes contribute to the stasis with blocking that restricts the actors' movements to small areas of the stage. Many solos are sung while the character stands in place, although Kelli Edwards' choreography in the ensemble numbers generally involves the company promenading around the pillars of Charles Morgan's austere set.
The stage lights up whenever Primack and Andrew Barbato as Martha's brother Dickon appear. They are both full of energy and sing with brio. Their characters take great interest in Mary, treating her with respect and affection, and the child responds by coming out of her shell with them. There is a natural, mature quality to Smith's acting and she is never showy in her performance. She has great chemistry with her adult friends Primack and Barbato, and relates authentically as a peer with the other accomplished child actor, Dashiell Evett as Archie's invalid son Colin.
Cirone captures the desperation and angst of Archie's existence, moving languidly, and sometimes appearing as if even the act of breathing is too much. By contrast, robust Rishi Basu plays his brother Neville who suffers from hidden torment. Together, Cirone and Basu deliver a powerful rendition of "Lily's Eyes," an emotionally revealing song. Although her character is deceased, Ellis is prominent throughout the story and, counterintuitively, breathes life into the scenes which feature her as a ghost. She lends her voice to several songs with others, but her soprano takes flight in the dramatic eleven o'clock number "How Could I Ever Know" with Cirone. Strong vocal performances are also contributed by Christopher Chew (Ben Weatherstaff, an old gardener) and Matthew Eamon Ryan as Mary's father, the late Captain Albert Lennox.
Music Director Jim Rice on piano leads a band of four musicians who attack the score with gusto, but often overpower the vocals. Sound Designer/engineer John Stone needs to tweak something because dialogue is also not always discernible, made more difficult by thick accents. Visually, the costumes of Paula Peasley-Ninestein and John Eckert's lighting design add authenticity and atmosphere, respectively. However, when the miraculous rebirth of the garden restores health and happiness to everyone, the set decoration is woefully inadequate. Whatever's growing behind that wall remains a secret. How about a vibrant burst of colorful blooms at the end of the show? Now that would be lovely and life-affirming.
Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (Andrew Barbato, Brigit Smith)