So, here's a confession. As a pre-teen without ready access to New York City, I was obsessed with the Broadway cast recording for Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon's The Secret Garden. I played my cassette tape over and over again and my little sister and I used to act out the show in our yard or in my bedroom. Even as a young theatre-lover, I thought the score was one of the most beautiful I had ever heard.
So, now we fast forward to 2016. Even as an avid adult theatergoer I've never quite seen a production that lived up to my expectations. I am happy to report that David Armstrong's production of this gorgeous show at Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) satisfied this now grown up fan of Frances Hodgson Burnett's original 1910 novel and the subsequent 1991 musical. Playing STC on its way to Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre (where Director/Choreographer David Armstrong is the Executive Producer and Artistic Director) in Spring 2017, this production of The Secret Garden excels in nearly every way.
Following her parents death from cholera in India, Mary Lennox (Anya Rothman) is brought to her Uncle Archibald Craven's (Michael Xavier) enormous, but eerie Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, England. She's surly, obstinate, haunted by seeing her parents die, and slow to warm up to anyone, including chamber maid Martha (Tony Award-winner Daisy Eagan, the original Mary on Broadway). A suggestion to go play outside leads her on a path of discovery - and ultimately to happiness and a place to belong - with the help of her new friend Dickon (Charlie Franklin) and the gardener Ben (a quirky Seán G. Griffin). She uncovers secrets inside and outside of the house, which ultimately helps the Manor's residents heal from a tragedy and discover ways to move forward together. A garden that once belonged to Archibald Craven's wife Lily (Lizzie Klemperer, a strong vocalist) blooms again thanks to Mary's dedication, but this rebirth isn't limited to the flowers. Archibald, Mary, and her "sickly" cousin Colin (a delightfully natural Henry Baratz) experience a rebirth too.
Armstrong's production concept allows this enchanting and emotionally resonant story to be presented in an honest, believable, and straightforward way. Yet, he still accounts for the role that ghosts and haunting memories play in the story development and character progression. His idea to use picture frames to bring Lily to life is particularly inspired and on point. That is not the only technical aspect that serves the story well though. Mike Baldassari's lighting and Anna Louizos' sets are crucial to demonstrate the physical transformation of Mary's world (and it's likely the set transitions will get smoother as the run progresses). Ann Hould-Ward's costumes for Mary visually highlight her progression to a person who sees opportunity ahead, not just more bleakness and despair.
Armstrong's choreography is also a wonderful addition, including to the ghost scenes. He incorporates South Asian influences into several production numbers ("Come Spirit, Come Charm") in a realistic and non-jarring way. They connect Mary's past with her present.
While most of the haunting songs from the original Broadway production -and subsequent amateur/professional ones - remain in the show, a few have been partially or entirely cut (for instance, "Round-Shouldered Man"), or appear in a different scene. Christopher Jahnke also contributed new orchestrations for them, which Rick Fox's thirteen player orchestra ably plays. Nearly all of the songs are gloriously sung, but even more important each actor uses them convincingly to express what his/her character is feeling. They serve a purpose and are not just a pretty distraction.
Of course, a strong book, score, and production concept doesn't necessarily always equate with a must-see production. In this case, the production also features many strong performances from a Washington, New York, and Seattle-based cast.
Rothman gives a natural performance as Mary. Her Mary isn't just some annoying brat; there's intention behind every choice. She also has a strong voice to boot ("The Girl I Mean to Be"). As Martha, Egan - in an interesting twist given her history with the show - stands in direct cheery contrast to Mary at their first introduction ("Skip, Skipped the Ladies/ If I Had a Fine White Horse"). On opening night, Egan experienced mic troubles during this scene and a later one in the first act, but she demonstrated the true professional she is because even without a completely functioning mic, I could still here her in the back of the orchestra. Her full-bodied voice allows for an exceptionally sung rendition of "Hold On" in Act Two. It is also filled with palpable emotion.
Josh Young (Dr. Neville Craven, Archibald's brother and Colin's caretaker) and Charlie Franklin give two of the best vocal performances in the show. Franklin, especially, comes out of the gate swinging with "Winter's on the Wing." We know who Dickon is immediately thanks to his convincing performance and the fact that the song is so well sung (perhaps one of the best sung renditions I've heard) makes it even better. While it took me a little while to appreciate Michael Xavier's vocals on opening night (there were some pitch issues at the beginning), his vocal blend with Josh Young on the emotionally powerful song "Lily's Eyes" is just lovely. Likewise, while I didn't necessarily feel any chemistry between Xavier and Klemperer on Archibald and Lily's big, final duet "How Could I Ever Know" on opening night, it was certainly well sung.
In sum, this Secret Garden is a winning combination. Whether you've seen the show before or are experiencing it for the first time, it's a wonderful way to spend the holidays.
Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes, including one intermission.
The Secret Garden plays at Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall - 610 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through December 31, 2016. For tickets, call the box office at 202-547-1122 or purchase them online.
Photo Caption: The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of THE SECRET GARDEN, directed by David Armstrong. Photo by Teresa Wood.