Los Angeles Theater Review: THE SECRET GARDEN, THE MUSICAL (Chance Theater in Anaheim)

Post image for Los Angeles Theater Review: THE SECRET GARDEN, THE MUSICAL (Chance Theater in Anaheim)

by Tony Frankel on November 28, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


What do Miss Saigon, Grand Hotel, City of Angels, Aspects of Love, Will Rogers Follies, and Meet Me in St Louis have in common? They opened during the 1990-91 Broadway season, and all of them (City of Angels to a lesser degree) are problematic with either awkward scores and/or books. Some are barely worthy of attention, yet they are revived far more often than they should be.

secret garden 001How did these shows become hits and why are they so frequently revived? Well, they all won Tony Awards (basically because there was no competition); the creators had previous hit shows (without their reputation, one wonders if they would have ever made it to the boards); and they all had respectable runs (helped by inventive design and direction).

There is another musical that belongs with the aforementioned overblown trivialities, and productions of it keep sprouting up like weeds (probably because it is far easier to stage than a flying helicopter): I refer to The Secret Garden, The Musical (1991). Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved 1911 novel, this musical oddity pairs the uneven music of first time Broadway composer Lucy Simon (Carly’s sister) with undistinguished lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman (‘Night, Mother), whose poorly constructed libretto is at least seasoned with some wonderful dialogue, which gives some justification to her Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical.

In the last year, The Chance Theater has shown what amazing work can be done in a small venue (Merrily We Roll Along, The Who’s Tommy, The Goat) but even this adventurous company — with their superlative acting, creative directing, and lovely design — can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear of a musical.

The story is powerful enough to have spawned numerous interpretations, including dance and film: 11-year-old Mary Lennox (Sarah Pierce) is orphaned in India and sent to Yorkshire to live with her uncle Archibald Craven (Paul Kehler), a hunchbacked man incapable of overcoming his decade-long grief over the death of his wife, Lily (Laura M. Hathaway), who haunts the large manor house, along with other ghosts of Mary and Archibald’s past. Mary discovers that she has a cousin, Colin (Dillon Klena), who has been bedridden for fear that he will turn out like his hunchback father.

secret garden 004

Instead of an opulent manor house, directors Casey Long (also sound design) and KC Wilkerson (scenic/lighting/projection design) chose to go with a neglected, Victorian gothic feel, while costumer Erika C. Miller succeeds with both the older, Victorian ghostly get-ups and newer Edwardian attire. Equally winning are hair and make-up by Julie Wilkins. The design team creates some beautiful scenes of light and shadow, but that score, which vacillates between pop ballads and derivative Sherman Brothers good-time simplicity, is so bereft of suspense that I doubt Hitchcock himself could have made the proceedings any spookier. This production has some gorgeous trappings, but the spirits don’t seem spine-chilling, and there is a void of tension and threat (maybe the ghosts – called “Dreamers” in the script – are too busy moving set pieces for us to take them seriously as apparitions).

secret garden 005

Burnett’s book centers around Mary and her relationships to Colin, a young chambermaid named Martha (Kellie Spill), and Martha’s brother Dickon (Kyle Cooper), who is some kind of groundskeeper druid that may or may not be able to talk to robins. By adding more emphasis on the adults, Norman spends more time on back story – her exposition is so convoluted, however, that one may get confused and frustrated. The opening number introduces characters, including a Fakir, a Major, and an Ayah (whatever the heck that is), who speak with Mary, but then inhabit the manor as spirits. Who are these people? It certainly doesn’t help when those poor actors are assigned different lyrics at the same time. Dramatically, the opening is so messy that it’s hard to get on board during the first act.

secret garden 006

Once Mary finds the entrance to the secret garden, she puts her key in the door and walks in (she was led to the key by Dickon’s robin); this ends Act I. We surmise that the tale will really pick up when we find what is inside, but at the top of Act II we find that the garden is not full of secrets, bones, or mystery…just weeds.

Decaying Gardens mean Unresolved Emotions, Magical Robin means Positive Outlook, Spirit-disturbing Dreams means Not Letting Go of The Past: maybe this should have been called Metaphor, The Musical!

secret garden 007

What makes this particular production feel treacle-free is the all-around superlative performances. Hathaway’s voice is as gorgeous as she is; her Lily is luminous. Pierce is a redoubtable triple-threat as Mary; not only is she a great singer and dancer, but that girl has some astoundingly natural acting chops. My favorite of the night is Kellie Spill’s enchanting chambermaid, Martha: Spill’s performance is sensitive, funny and commanding, and she controls her strong belting voice magnificently.

I promise the majority of viewers will be baffled somewhere during The Secret Garden. The Chance production is more than honorable and is most suitable for families with children (who will certainly be enchanted by Mary and Dickon’s effect on Colin). The huge wave of love emanating from the cast at the end may even bring a tear to your eye.

The fact that this musical has the legs that it does certainly makes me cry.

secret garden 008

photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

The Secret Garden, The Musical
Chance Theater
5522 E. La Palma Ave in Anaheim
ends on December 26, 2010 EXTENDED annually
current revival plays through December 2-23, 2017
for tickets, call call 714.777.3033 or visit Chance Theater

Leave a Comment