BWW Review: Two Stars and a Scintillating Score Make This SECRET GARDEN Glow
When 3-D Theatricals artistic director T.J. Dawson tells you during the curtain speech to read his program note before THE SECRET GARDEN begins, take him at his word. It will go a long way toward helping you understand the feverish dream sequence that lays the foundation for Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman's dark, but ultimately uplifting, musical based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 classic novel.
At its center is a family cursed with more than its fair share of heartbreak. Young Mary Lennox (Glory Joy Rose) is the only survivor of a cholera epidemic in India that has claimed the lives of her parents and everyone she knows.
Far away in England, her uncle Archibald (Dino Nicandros) still mourns the loss of his wife Lily (Jeanette Dawson) ten years after she died giving birth to their son Colin (Evan Gutierrez) whom Archibald keeps bedridden for fear the child has inherited his own physical deformity.
It is into this dreary household that Mary is sent to live, though not by choice. She arrives a spoiled brat but with the help of kindly spirits, a locked, overgrown garden, and the down-to-earth folk who work for Archibald, blossoms into the caring catalyst who helps heal them all.
Simon's sophisticated score is the star, with its haunting melodies and choral depth, though it is not always handled with finesse by an ensemble that has difficulty with pitch, clarity, and restraint. Sound issues were prevalent on opening night as even the orchestra was out of tune, most noticeably in the exposed sections of the score. Still, nothing could dim the overall effect of this lush gothic musical romance steeped in the ache of loss but rich in lessons of rebirth and the cyclical nature of life.
Also a star is Nicandros, in a deeply moving performance as the grieving widower. Archibald is a man lost and sinking under the weight of his own demons but Nicandros never gives in to the piece's melodramatic pull. Instead, he is grounded in an honest simplicity that reveals a chameleon-like actor who has matured over the last several years on southern California stages and should be on everyone's watch list. With a gorgeous voice and impeccable phrasing, he also sounds eerily like Mandy Patinkin, who originated the role, when he sings.
As Mary, Rose bites into the role with gusto. She is an unlikable character for a great deal of the first act but when Rose makes the transition from petulant to precocious we see a girl whose previously undeveloped concern for others blooms like the garden in which she finds a purpose and an actress capable of rounding the turn. Dawson's tender presence watches over all.
Around them, an ominous production design comes together to create the imposing Misselthwaite Manor and grounds where helpful spirits and restless humans reside (scenic design by Stephen Gifford, lighting by Paul Black, projections by Andrew Nagy). Gifford's somber portraiture and towering, movable stair units become even more menacing against the midnight blues and obsidian grays of Nagy's projections and the severity of Black's lighting. A perpetual air of melancholy exists, even in the background of Mary's more lighthearted scenes with Martha (Renna Nightingale) and Dickon (Brandon Root) until we reach the touching finale when all wrongs are righted and a family reunited in Gifford's sumptuous, but no longer secret, garden.
Photo credit: Caught in the Moment.com