‘The Secret Garden’ at Arden Theatre Company (second review)

A Secret Garden grows in Old City

The Secret Garden combines considerable emotional appeal with a problematic story. Set long ago in distant lands, its plot involves ghosts and supernatural powers and is thus is not easily accessible to today’s audiences.

Alex Keiper and Bailey Ryon in the Arden Theatre Company's 'The Secret Garden.' (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Adding to its remoteness is the necessity for its cast to speak with a Yorkshire accent and Edwardian vocabulary. Then too, the music’s operetta-style declamation, offset by some folklike tunes, is unlike other American shows.

So, with these obstacles, why does it still fascinate the Arden Theatre’s Terrence J. Nolen (and me)? Simply put, it’s fascinating because it spotlights musical complexity and theatrical creativity. Nolen describes its music as “a score that needed to be heard.” The show’s composer, Lucy Simon, is the sister of opera soprano Joanna Simon, which helps explain Lucy’s penchant for full-voiced vocals; another sister is the pop singer Carly Simon. 

Meeting a musical challenge

The Secret Garden relies on two strong baritones and an operatic lead soprano, and has vocally demanding trios, quartets, and 13 people singing together in ensembles. The 1991 Broadway production featured the soaring voices of Mandy Patinkin, Robert Westenberg, Rebecca Luker and Alison Fraser. To meet this musical challenge, Nolen cast Jeffrey Coon, Jim Hogan, Elisa Matthews and Alex Keiper. They were expertly trained by music director Ryan Touhey and conductor Amanda Morton.  

Audiences will respond to this show in two contrasting ways. Those who grew up with the 1911 children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett may object because a child-centered story has been changed to one that puts emphasis on adults, and particularly on the rivalry of brothers in love and in possessions.

Mary Lennox (Bailey Ryon), a 10-year-old girl raised in British India, is orphaned by a cholera outbreak. She is sent to live in England with her only living relative, Archibald (Coon), whose late wife was the sister of Mary’s mother. Dealing with the problems of a sulking, depressed uncle and a crippled cousin who continually says he’s going to die and his father hates him, Mary eventually brings new life to a neglected garden and to her relatives.

Broadway versus books

On the other hand, those more familiar with Broadway shows than with Burnett’s book will focus on the musical and theatrical challenges and will see this as an effective re-imagining of the story. The creative team of Marsha Norman (book and lyrics), Simon, Susan Schulman (director), Heidi Landesman (scenic design) and Theoni Aldredge (costumes) agreed that big adult voices were required to fill a 1700-seat theater (New York’s St. James) with large emotions and high-flying melodies. Even with electronic amplification, children’s voices can’t do that.  

The strangeness of the tale cries out for a unique visual approach. Nolen and Jorge Cousineau supply this with miniatures photographed by video cameras and projected onto the multi-leveled set. For example, we see Mary, downstage, place paper dolls into the backdrop scenery. As the cameras track through fields and cottages, the set seems to expand and become three-dimensional.

(I recall the 1991 production for its toy theater and a doll’s house with pop-out figures.)

Steve Pacek, Anthony Lawton, Scott Greer, Sarah Gliko and Sally Mercer are just four of the many other pros in this classy cast. This is such an ensemble effort that two of the cast members — Greer and Glicko — played guitar and piccolo when they weren’t singing.  

For Naomi Orwin's review, click here

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