THE SECRET GARDEN at TheatreWorks a brilliant technical production but

The cast of THE SECRET GARDEN at TheatreWorks. Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka

THE SECRET GARDEN: Musical Drama. Book & Lyrics by Marsha Norman. Music by Lucy Simon. Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Directed by Robert Kelley. TheatreWorks at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA. (650) 463-1960 or visit

November 30 – December 31, 2011

THE SECRET GARDEN at TheatreWorks a brilliant technical production but . . .

Never having read and being only minimally aware of the writings of Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of much ballyhooed novel The Secret Garden, this review is probably biased. Rumor has it that the musical version appearing in 1991 has become a staple production for the Holiday Season. One must wonder why since it is a dark, moody play, populated with emotionally and physically crippled characters and the uplifting ending seems contrived. With 27 songs, often sung it operatic style, much of it in recitative it hardly qualifies for it for Holiday fare.

However, once again TheatreWorks has produced a brilliant technical offering that earns a “must see” rating, with the caveat that it is for adults and hardly for children. The symbiosis between director Kelley, set designer Joe Ragey, costume designer Fumkio Bielefeldt and lighting designer Pamila Z. Gray is stunning. Those factors do not fully compensate for the two hours and 30 minute running time and one would wish for more stage time for the household/garden staff with Dickon (Alex Brightman), the magical gardener leading the way.

It all begins in 1906 India with “Opening Dream” as 10-year old Mary Lennox (Angelina Wahler/ Rachael Sue) dreams of England while a Hindu chant swirls around her bed. On awakening she discovers that her parents and nanny, Ayah (Mrigendra Steiner) have died in the cholera epidemic. She is sent back to England to live with her only living relatives, Archibald Craven (Joe Cassidy) and his brother Dr. Neville Craven. Archibald’s wife Lilly, sister to Mary’s mother, died in childbirth and he is so overcome with grief he is unable to function leaving the running of “The House Upon the Hill”, called Misselthwaite, to Neville. We learn, rather dramatically that that was not a good idea, since Neville covets ownership and will do nefarious things to assure that he will inherit it.

The house with its many hallways is haunted with ghosts, including the dear departed Lily. Throughout the show, most of the songs are sung by a chorus of ghosts who act as a Greek chorus to carry the plot forward. The interesting characters who take Mary under their wings are the aforementioned Dickon (he speaks to and understands “animal talk”), his chambermaid sister Martha (Courtney Stokes) and the gardener Ben (Daniel Olson). She meets them in front of a wall hiding the neglected “secret garden”. Ben and Dickon assure her that the plants only need some of attention and “A Bit of Earth” to make them blossom.

Inquisitive Mary, against the admonition of the keepers of the mansion, roams those halls, coming upon the bedridden Colin (Charles Ibsen/Andrew Apy), Archibald and Lilly’s son. Conflict arises between Neville and Mary as he tries to send her away while he “treats”, actually ill treats, Colin’s infirmity. You can guess “the rest of the story” as the garden comes to life there is a parallel coming to life of Colin and the banishment of Neville.

This is an impressive musical with excellent acting, talented singers, and superb direction with every aspect of the staging worthy of a Bay Area Critics Award with the re-emphasis it is not really for children.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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