While most are familiar with The Secret Garden either from reading the book or watching the movie, the latest musical production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company raises the bar with a wonderful cast that delivers commanding yet moving performances. The audience was gasping and clapping during the entire performance. The cast moves around with ease in a stunning set that transports you to a magical garden, complete with moving parts and changing landscapes that seemed to shift seamlessly like scenes in a movie.
Scenic Designer Anna Louizos created an atmosphere that looked as magical as the story of that secret garden. The magic had its finishing touches from Costume Designer Ann Hould-Ward, who takes on the task of making Victorian era costumes look vibrant and at the same time traditional. She especially is able to translate the idea of spiritual beings into creative designs that help the continuity of the story.
The production, based on the book and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman, is a tender rendition of the original book. In true Norman fashion, there is a range of emotions that are covered, from sadness and anger from loss to hopefulness and the willingness to go on. It is an optimistic take on finding strength even in dire circumstances.
At the center of the story is young Mary Lennox, who is brought to life beautifully by Anya Rothman, carrying so much of the play one forgets she is still a child, definitely a rising star. We first meet Mary in her home in India. She lives with her parents and servants. A child of privilege, she is very spoiled. Soon after we meet her she is left orphaned, as her parents and all the people she knows fall prey to a cholera outbreak. She is then sent to England to live with her uncle, a recluse who is also mourning the loss of his beautiful wife Lily.
The terrific cast is able to animate this story through some stand-out numbers. It is clear that Director/Choreographer David Armstrong has polished some of the elements as the movements were so graceful. He captured that otherworldly ghost element of believing in magic and having the “spirits” interact with the living.
The first act is full of sadness and mystery. Some of the exceptional numbers included “Lily’s Eyes” performed by Michael Xavier, who plays Archibald with a commanding stage presence, and Josh Young, as his brother Dr. Neville Craven. Their voices rose through the Harman Center for the Arts filling the air with the same longing that appears during Act I. Another standout was “A Bit of Earth,” sung with great emotion by Xavier and Rothman.
Charlie Franklin was endearing as Martha’s brother – the optimistic and joy-filled Dickon. His rendition of “Winter’s on the Wing” was magical.
The entire first act is filled with enormous obstacles for the characters, as they start to discover their own internal strength.
During the second act, the young characters Mary and her cousin Colin Craven (played by Henry Baratz) come to realize that their companionship makes them stronger and their wish for a family is well within their reach. In the second act Baratz and Lizzie Klemperer (Lily Craven) deliver “Come to My Garden’ lovingly and beautifully.
The second act delivers even more poignant performances with impressive numbers such as “Hold On,” which sees Martha and Dickon encouraging our young heroes to keep going. The voices of Daisy Eagan and charming Charlie Franklin bring a brightness that is needed during the second act.
And the glorious voice of Lizzie Klemperer singing “Come to My Garden” was spine-tingling, and her and Xavier’s emotional rendition of “How Could I Ever Know” was moving and volcanic. As this duet and the second act came to a conclusion, I could hear the people around me sniffling, moved to tears.
Lucy Simon’s lush score was performed by 14 superb musicians, lead by Conductor/Musical Director Rick Fox. I could see his conducting from where I was sitting and it was the perfect addition to the wonderful voices on stage, and made the performance even more special for me. The orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke made the entire production feel more dynamic.
I cannot imagine a better way to spend the holiday season than sharing this production of The Secret Garden with your children, grandchildren, and all of your loved ones.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s glorious The Secret Garden is truly a special and thoroughly delightful production. It’s the perfect gift for the holidays!
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.