Not always perfect: ‘The Secret Garden’ at TheatreWorks

The strength of the production came from Rachel Sue, who played Mary Lennox. Angry, rude and obstinate, she embodies both the Victorian idea of a child outside of normal conventions – as well one capable of creating herself, free from social expectations.

TheatreWorks - A Secret Garden
In Review

The Secret Garden

2.5 out of 5 stars
2.5 out of 5 stars - 'Comme ci, comme ça'
TheatreWorks
Directed by Robert Kelley
Book & Lyrics by Marsha Norman
Music by Lucy Simon
Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Through December 31, 2011
Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto
www.theatreworks.org
Review by

TheatreWorks - A Secret Garden

Reading Robert Kelley’s director’s notes is always a pleasure – and his notes to this work are no exception. He asks why this story has such timeless allure, making the reader feel like they are in safe hands. Reading his lines, one feels he understands why this book mattered so much to so many girls. Unfortunately, that feeling ends shortly after the curtain rises.

Frances Hodgson Burnett followed a long line of Victorian novelists who romanticized the orphan. Like Dickens, Brönte, Gaskell, Thackery, and others who relied on the orphan to inject a little mystery  into their work, Burnett created  the orphans Mary and Colin. Mary was orphaned after the Indian cholera epidemic took her parents. Colin was orphaned after his mother died in childbirth. Although his father is alive, Victorians considered him an orphan (as they did all children with one parent) because they appreciated that children need two parents. Fictional orphans were seen both as plucky mites who chart their own way in the world, as well as suspect characters at odds with social norms.

TheatreWorks - The Secret Garden
Lily (Patricia Noonan) and Archie (Joe Cassidy) fall in love in The Secret Garden.

Nearly 100 years old, The Secret Garden continues to be a best seller among girls precisely because the orphaned protagonist is a free agent. Neither Mary or Collin has much to do with the adult world in which they find themselves.  Largely abandoned by the adults at Misselthwaite Manor, they thrive precisely because of that benign neglect. However, in Marsha Norman’s take on this material, she adds an adult drama that takes up more than 50 percent of the story line, transforming a children’s classic into a maudlin adult tale. Working on the conceit that Misselthwaite is haunted, she peoples it with characters who don’t exist in The Secret Garden.  The story becomes so driven by the adult action that it’s a rare moment that the adults are off the stage all together. One wonders what possessed Manor to take this script in this direction. Did the singular characters of Mary and Colin seem too fantastically unbelievable? Whatever the reason, her infusion of new material and new characters fails to honor the work – or audience expectations.

This deviation might have been less aggravating had the sound system been better balanced. Whenever more than one adult sang, the volume assaulted the listener’s ears. Voices were poorly matched with each other, and words were often unclear.

That said, The Secret Garden did have much going for it, with respect to staging, set and color. The blast of energy and color that opened the play, captured the bedlam of Bombay during cholera epidemic. The silently sliding panels brought back the twisted hallways of Misselthwaite even recalled Tasha Tudor’s paintings of the same. Adam Theodore Barry (Fakir) struck the right tone, leading the production forward. However, not surprisingly, the strength of the production came from Angelina Wahler, who played Mary Lennox. Angry, rude and obstinate, she embodies both the Victorian idea of a child outside of normal conventions – as well one capable of creating herself, free from social expectations.

TheatreWorks will return in January with The Pitman Painters, a story about six 1930’s miners who take up painting. One looks forward to this west coast premiere written by the author of Billy Elliot.

San Francisco Bay Area Arts and CultureThe Secret Garden

TheatreWorks
Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto

2.5 out of 5 stars (Ho-Hum)

Directed by Robert Kelley
Through December 31, 2011
Book & Lyrics by Marsha Norman
Music by Lucy Simon
Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
www.theatreworks.org

[Photos: Mark Kitaoka]

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Cy Ashley Webb
Cy spent the ‘80’s as a bench scientist, the tech boom doing intellectual property law, and the first decade of the millennium, aspiring to be the world’s oldest grad student at Stanford where she is interested in political martyrdom. Presently, she enjoys writing for Stark Insider and the SF Examiner, hanging out at Palo Alto Children's Theatre, and participating in various political activities. Democracy is not a spectator sport! Cy is a SFBATCC member.
  • Bridget

    I saw this production and it makes me wonder if we saw the same show.  I thought it worked beautifully. As an adult, I want to understand the adult relationships and underlying motivations and feelings for those characters.  So I didn’t feel they dominated the play. Also, as someone who has seen many Broadway musicals in NYC, I thought the characters’ words were clear. The voices of Joe Cassidy and Patricia Noonan were stellar, hauntingly beautiful.  I thought Les Mis was one of the most beautiful shows I had ever seen, but this one topped it.   

  • I recently saw this production and felt it was weak,  but not for the reasons highlighted in this review. This critic seems to dislike the musical book of The Secret Garden in comparison to the actual book. That is not the reason this production failed. The failure of the production was that it the characters lacked the emotional depth, or were directed not to exhibit it, and the production came off as heartless. It’s as if all of the ugly of the story were removed to make it child-friendly like a Disney production. The voices were generally good or great, but that’s not what makes a musical like The Secret Garden succeed. The actress who played Mary was very good and I understand why she was cast, but she was a touch too old for a 10-year-old Mary Lennox, and unfortunately her behavior and lack of the same sort of emotional reaction to her parent’s death exhibited by other characters did not quite work as she looked more 13 or 14 than 10. Her voice and acting was otherwise a highlight of the production. The actress who played Lily came across as a Disney Princess, and I found her smiling even on the flashback moment when her sister disowned her since she was marrying a hunchback (where was his hunchback, by the way?) and — although it may be a directorial choice to have her be angelic and smiling during actual memories of her, when it’s just a flashback to explain the story, she should not be smiling, she should be feeling pain, so we feel for her. Lily is a complex character, even as a ghost, and she was flattest of all. The young actor playing Colin, when throwing temper tantrums, seemed on the verge of laughter, and his suffering was not very believable either. The whole production lacked the dark, gothic, looming sadness that is required for Mary to come break through and change, as she herself changes and grows from a 10 year old to an 11 year old, leaving childhood, approaching adolescence. This musical can be so wonderful, but it requires not just quality vocals, but also deep acting and a transformation of all the characters in the cast. This transformation was superficial at best for anyone in this production. It was a typical TheatreWorks musical — all the elements are there, but somehow it just doesn’t come together.