The Secret Garden

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater
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Lucy Simon’s hauntingly beautiful score for THE SECRET GARDEN remains one of the glories of the Broadway stage. Marsha Norman’s book is often blamed for the fact that the show is infrequently performed. Critical voices find the opening sequence, set in India, confusing, and the balance of the action, set in a desolate and crumbling English manor, a bit too Gothic for the youngsters.

But, in a pre-Disney Broadway world, Norman and Simon dared to explore the darker elements of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel which itself waited until after the author’s death to be appreciated.

The palpable nature of the ghosts and their lingering tragedies might scare off some producers, but there are also tremendous vocal challenges. The score is an unabashed modern operetta and demands skillful singing from highly trained voices, both in the principal roles and the chorus. It also requires British accents from everyone, including two children. And three important characters must use a thick Yorkshire accent. It's a sound not always easy for American actors to master and one even harder for American audiences to comprehend.

Then there is Mary Lennox, the central character in the story. Mary is a traumatized pre-teen who survives a cholera epidemic which killed her parents and everyone she knows. She has none of the smiling optimism of her contemporary fictional characters, Pollyanna and  Anne Shirley. Packed off to her nearest surviving relative-by-marriage to eke out her days in a cold and foreign landscape, she is confused and angry.

3-D Theatricals is lucky to have found as skilfull a young performer as Glory Joy Rose to play Mary. Rose’s performance provides a strong foundation for the show, and both her singing and her accent are laudable. But, more importantly, the actress carefully reveals Mary’s emotional life. She charts the character’s journey from a withdrawn and resentful girl with no interest in life to a confident youngster with a mission.

Finding and restoring the titular secret garden is what heals Mary’s soul, but Mary and her garden cannot help but affect some of the other brokenhearted members of her family. Chief among them is Archibald Craven (Dino Nicandros), a bitter and tortured hunchback haunted by the ghost of his wife, Lily (Jeanette Dawson). Nicandros was born to play this role. His dark, brooding looks and the agony he tries to hide with a veneer of harshness make the character’s kinship with Heathcliff more apparent than in any previous production I’ve seen. Nicandros is always an expressive singer, but Archibald is a challenge he pours his heart into. He soars effortlessly to every vocal climax but always manages to keep a delicate thrum of the character’s vulnerability alive in the sound.

Sam Ludwig’s Neville Craven is a strong vocal match for Nicandros, but he particularly shines allowing us to see how his twisted feelings of jealousy for his brother’s relationship with Lily have set him on his own path of despair. Brightening up the general gloom is Renna Nightingale’s eminently practical Martha. A maid in the house, she quickly takes Mary’s measure and prods the girl in the right direction. Nightingale’s Yorkshire accent sounds believable but can be hard to understand, particularly in her otherwise well-sung solos.

Martha’s brother Dickon is often cast in a slightly elfin mode. Brandon Root is a strapping young man who is definitely flesh and blood, but he brings a pleasant sound to his numbers and serves as an important guide for Mary. As Lily, Dawson moves gracefully through the role. Her soprano has a large, plummy sound and the role has a very high tessitura. This makes diction a larger problem than it would be from someone with a more slender tone. Evan Gutierrez makes a convincingly petulant Colin with a lovely soprano and a decent accent.

Strong performances also come from Richard Gould’s crusty, but lovable, Ben and Jillian Doyle’s hiss-worthy Mrs. Medlock. There is terrific singing from the entire ensemble, but mention should be made of Ari Aaron’s Fakir, Randi de Marco’s Ayah, and Travis Leland’s lovely solo lines as the ghost of Mary’s father, which make you want to hear more. Finally, veteran performer Tracy Lore gives a brief master class in scene-stealing when she steps out as Mrs. Winthrop in the second act.

Allen Everman does a terrific job in his musical direction of the company as well as his stirring conducting of the lush score. Director T.J. Dawson does strong work with enhancing and clarifying the emotional life of the characters, something that resonates in all the small scale scenes. I must admit that some of the full company scenes feel a bit unfocused with staircases moving because they can, and people marching about without much seeming purpose. At the same time, I have to report that I was sitting in the second row and all the way to the side of the house. A more central seat, further back, might have given me a clearer view of the action.

Despite my minor caveats, the opportunity to see a production of THE SECRET GARDEN this well cast, acted, and sung is a thrill that you shouldn’t let pass you by.

Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts    May 3 – 19, 2019    www.cerritoscenter.com