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BWW Review: Mad Cow's THE SECRET GARDEN is Bleak, Uninspired Adaptation


Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved novel THE SECRET GARDEN has been thrilling the imaginations of readers young and old since 1911, and in 1991 Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's musical adaptation won three Tony Awards, bringing the classic story to life in a brand new way. Their musical, which is playing at Orlando's Mad Cow Theatre through December 20th, thrived on Broadway, and regionally ever since, because of its soaring music, life-affirming story, and the creativity that its magical world allows. Unfortunately, directed by Aradhana Tiwari, Mad Cow's production squanders a universally talented cast on a bleak and bland vision that lacks the magic and imagination that the story, on both page and stage, has inspired for over a century.

Orphaned while living in colonial India, 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Kennedy Joy Foristall) is sent to live at the manor of her misanthropic, hunchbacked uncle Archibald Craven (Zach Nadolski). Left nearly completely alone, other than for the care of her uncle's servants, Mary wanders the grounds before stumbling across the walled garden that used to belong to her late aunt Lily (Heather Kopp). As Mary and members of the manor's staff begin to secretly care for the garden against Archibald's wishes, it becomes clear that there is something very special happening inside its ivy covered walls.

Zach Nadolski in THE SECRET GARDEN
Photo Credit: Tom Hurst | Mad Cow Theatre

Tiwari's cast is exceptionally talented, each displaying wonderful vocal ability, but the murky production concept sacrifices story in favor of an almost concert-like performance. Most songs are delivered in a stand and sing manner, and when characters do move it usually doesn't seem to be for any particular reason other than that it was time for them to move. The acting for nearly all is disappointingly static. Each cast member plays his or her one specific character trait well, but few ever move to something more, despite what the text would suggest.

Fortunately, nearly every member of the cast possesses remarkable vocal talent. Chief amongst them is Nadolski's Uncle Archie. The actor has an incredibly rich baritone that he uses to admirably convey the character's deep descent into depression and madness. Unfortunately, this is the only note that Nadolski seems to play. While Archibald is obviously troubled, we don't see much nuance, even when he is thinking of the happier times when his beloved Lily was alive.

Foristall is at her best while singing, and when she is stubbornly resisting the influence of her elders. However, when she becomes the curious explorer determined to find entry into the garden, the spark in her eye seems to fade ever so slightly.

Norman's libretto and Simon's score rely heavily on the use of ghosts and memories that haunt Misselthwaite Manor. They are presumably haunting Mary and Archibald, but also serve as dreams, and a form of a Greek chorus, explaining and commenting on situations. However, their presence is never made clear to the audience, robbing it of whatever impact it might have had. Similarly, the choreography by Holly Harris, in which the ensemble portrays Yorkshire's rolling hills and the garden itself, misses the mark, veering from abstract to absurd and back again.

The show's most entertaining pair are Archibald's housemaid Martha and her brother Dickon. As Martha, Sara Catherine Barnes is exceptionally enjoyable, able to play her light-hearted moments as sincerely as her more serious ones, and she has a fantastic voice as well. Likewise, Cole NeSmith provided the show with a dose of much needed energy and whimsy, while giving an equally strong vocal as well.

Photo Credit: Tom Hurst | Mad Cow Theatre

Steven Lane plays Archibald's sniveling, younger brother Neville, who was also in love with the late Lily. As with other cast members, Lane sounds great, especially on his duet with Nadolski, "Lily's Eyes," but from beginning to end, I was never able to pin down exactly what his objective was. At times, I thought he was purposely undermining his brother out of spite, and at others I thought that he was merely overzealously keeping him at arm's length. While ambiguity is almost always a positive in dramatic storytelling, to leave the show with such a large unanswered question is confounding.

As Lily, Heather Kopp has a lovely soprano voice, and her generally loving presence provides an occasional breath of fresh air into the show.

Music Director Philip King does marvelous work, not only in helping shape this collection of talented vocalists, but also in serving as an on-stage, one-man band for the performances.

Despite the production's other shortcomings, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Mad Cow's THE SECRET GARDEN was Rebecca Pancoast's uninspired, minimal set. The limitations of bringing both a cavernous mansion and expansive garden to the same stage in Mad Cow's small space are obvious, so it went without saying that to do so would require some theatrical creativity. However, the fact that no stage magic was even attempted to create the garden until the very end of the show was frustrating. The garden is such a central part of this story, not only as a setting, but as a transformative entity unto itself, that to have it receive no differentiation from the manor for most of the show is anti-climactic. Not to mention that when set decorations are finally unveiled for the garden, they completely contradict the show's stated season.

The show's dark and drab lighting, which is ever present, whether the characters are indoors or out in the garden, also put a significant damper on the storytelling.

Rachel Whittington, Terry Farley, Cole NeSmith (foreground) and Crystal Lizardo

Photo Credit: Tom Hurst | Mad Cow Theatre

Despite the remarkable pedigree, Mad Cow's THE SECRET GARDEN lacks the magic that this tale usually possesses. However, if you are a long-time lover of the novel, or its numerous film and TV adaptations, this live experience might be more impactful for you than it was me. You can purchase tickets at Mad Cow's website or by calling 407-297-8788.

Did you take a journey into the Secret Garden? Let me know what you thought in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter by using the buttons below. You can also chat with me about the show on Twitter @BWWMatt. If you want to follow along with my "366 in 366" articles, you can check out #BWW366in366 on Twitter.

Banner Image Credit: Cole NeSmith, Kennedy Joy Foristall, Zach Nadolski, Foristall: Tom Hurst | Mad Cow Theatre

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