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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"The Secret Garden" at The 5th Avenue Theatre Brings Grown-up Depth to a Childhood Favorite

Among the many books I read as a girl, Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's book The Secret Garden remains a favoriteI fell in love with it all over again on opening night of the revival of the award-winning 1991 Broadway musical The Secret Garden at The 5th Avenue Theatre, in Seattle. It runs there until May 6, 2017. The story, originally serialized in 1910, appeared shortly after in book form and remained popular throughout my 1960s childhood, at least. As an adult, I now appreciate this story even more, as moving and meaningful in a most grown-up way. Presented with stunning beauty in all aspects of the sets, lighting, sound, music, costumes, and special effects, it becomes a magical experience.

The 5th Avenue Theater's Executive Producer and Artistic Director David Armstrong not only directs this masterpiece but also did the choreography. His exceptional taste and talents maximize the potential of Marsha Norman's book and lyrics, Lucy Simon's music, and the fine cast. The production is the product of a collaboration between The 5th Avenue and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. It includes impressive and award-wining actors from our nation's opposite shore as well as the Pacific Northwest. (You can learn more about cast members and read their bios by clicking here.) 

Josh Young as Dr. Neville Craven in The Secret Garden- Photo Credit: Tracy Martin
Like all children of rich, indulgent, but indifferent parents, who provide material things in place of genuine love and closeness, the young protagonist, Mary Lennox (Bea Corley) was already a miserable, bossy, unappealing, and lonely child when orphaned in late 19th century India. Her parents, there as part of the British Raj, die in a cholera epidemic. So does the woman who comes closest to being her surrogate mother, the servant Aya (Maya Maniar) Other servants abandon the household out of fear, leaving the child completely alone. After being discovered by British military officers, she is sent back to England to live at the Yorkshire country estate of her appointed guardian, a reclusive and hunchbacked uncle named Archibald Craven, played by Broadway and West End star Tam Mutu. 

Daisy Eagan as Martha and Bea Corley as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Tracy Martin
Meanwhile, the estate's staff tries to be loving and patient with this difficult girl who needs to learn how to get along with others. She has not known parental love and normal family life, or even friendships with peers. Seattle favorite Marianne Owen gives a fine performance as the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock. So does Daisy Eagan as the warm and charming maid, Martha. Coincidentally, Eagan herself played the role of Mary Lennox in the original Broadway production of The Secret Garden. She became the youngest female actor to win a Tony Award® for Best Musical as a result. 

Tam Mutu as Archibald Craven and Lizzie Klemperer as Lily Craven in The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka
The actual garden in "The Secret Garden" was the special haven of Archibald Craven's young wife, Lily (Lizzie Klemperer). After her death, he sank into a pathetic existence as a mournful recluse who cannot accept or move beyond his loss. Long before Mary's arrival, the gate to this walled garden was locked and the key hidden. Special effects abound in this spectacular production. My favorite was the large artist's portrait of Lily, complete with the rich and glowing colors of a Maxfield Parish painting. From within the frame on the wall, she comes to life and sings, her unforgettable soprano voice filling the theater. 

Ignored by her uncle in his vast estate on the Yorkshire moors, Mary's only companions are her nursemaid Martha, Martha's brother Dickon (Charlie Franklin) and the old gardener, Ben Weatherstaff (Seán G. Griffin). From them, this lost and lonely child begins to discover the joys of both nature and friendship, instead of being entirely focused on herself. She also obsesses about the overgrown and neglected garden and wants desperately to get inside. 

Bea Corley as Mary Lennox and Lizzie Klemperer as Lily Craven in The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka

After hearing cries in the night, young Mary discovers another secret. Confined to his room is her equally miserable cousin, Colin Craven (Guthrie Greenwood Bettinger), a boy about her age. He is the son of her Uncle Archibald and late Aunt Lily. After his mother died in childbirth, for all the following years, he was hidden, kept in bed, and sometimes drugged by a physician uncle, Doctor Neville Craven (Josh Young), Archibald's younger brother. The decision was supposedly an attempt to preserve the seemingly fragile life of the tiny infant, and out of fear that he would inherit his father's deformity. This part of the story is the most difficult to fathom, but true to the book. Archibald, because of his unbearable grief, sees his son only when the boy is asleep. The doctor, whose motivations complicate the plot, has convinced the child that he cannot walk and will die. After Mary's intervention, his life will change. The garden will come to symbolize the very idea of spring and rejuvenation, both botanically speaking and within the human heart. 

Lizzie Kelmperer as Lily Craven and Coleman Hunter as Colin Craven in The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka
Mary and Colin, each dealing with challenges and circumstances imposed on them by adults, will finally discover within the walls of the Secret Garden the freedom and joy every childhood should include. Both of these young actors amazed me with singing abilities beyond their years. They sang with confidence, clarity, and volume, worthy to perform with the adult actors around them, whose vocals were consistently excellent, moving, and beautiful. At times, this musical seems more like opera, accompanied by the theater's outstanding orchestra, at its best. In fact, this entire production is The 5th Avenue at its best, in every way.

The Cast of The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka
If you need to be uplifted by a story about hope and the renewal of the spirit, this is it. And speaking of spirits, this musical is populated with them, eight spirits in all. Illuminated and ever present, they poignantly suggest that past and present may exist simultaneously, with our absent loved ones still near, though unseen. The loved ones surrounding me when I was the little girl who read this book decades ago, seemed close as I sat in the audience. Revisited your own memories of childhood wonder and innocence, in the context of your adult perspective. Make plans now to see The Secret Garden.  

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