Review: THE SECRET GARDEN (3-D Theatricals)

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by Lawrence Lucero on May 12, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


The Secret Garden, the hauntingly romantic musical by Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music) opened on Broadway 1991 and ran 709 performances. The show starred Mandy Patinkin, Rebecca Luker, John Cameron Mitchell, and Robert Westenberg; 11-year old Daisy Egan became the youngest recipient of a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Receiving mixed notices with some praise for the music and individual performances, most reviews focused on the show’s ghostly chorus and the confusing beginning.

For 3-D Theatricals, director T.J. Dawson graciously attempts to resolve this confusion in the program, explaining what the choreographed stylized opening often fails to communicate to most audiences. While Mr. Dawson clued me in on a couple of the sequence’s detailed points, the opening still remains somewhat cryptic. What we see and hear is a party of affluent couples dancing to music and vocals which tell us we’re in India. As they dance, an Indian man and woman — who we assume are house staff — give them red colored ribbons. The couples expire from a cholera outbreak as a sole surviving little girl climbs under the protective netting of her bed. She is discovered by military soldiers and sent to her uncle in England. This is as I’ve seen and understood the sequence in productions past but what I was struck with here was the thought that the Indian couple were in some way responsible for the party-goer’s demise. A more general interpretation leads me to believe the couple and the party-goers symbolize a repercussion of being a stranger in a strange land.

While the opening remains problematic, Dawson’s staging of The Secret Garden, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel of 1911, is universally lush, spirited, and dark. With rich musical direction by Allen Everman, ghostly lighting by Paul Black, fanciful costumes by Alexandra Johnson (perhaps a bit too sparkly for spooks), a resplendent set by Stephen Gifford, and 24 incredibly strong singers, this production is most impressive. I also enjoyed the clouds and various visual effects by Andrew Nagy, albeit a few less projected birds might have been nice.

The Secret Garden depicts a seemingly endless winter that engulfs Archibald Craven (Dino Nicandros), a Yorkshire widower who loses his wife, Lily (Jeanette Dawson), and may soon lose his crippled son Colin (Evan Gutierrez). But providence hands him plucky Mary Lennox (Glory Joy Rose), a resilient niece whose parents (Jennifer Cannon and Travis Leland) succumbed to cholera. As long as the living need them, the dead freely visit their loved ones — here, the spirits “are not gone, just dead.” Along with chambermaid Martha (Renna Nightingale), her brother Dickon — a nature-savvy peasant lad (Brandon Root), and a ready robin, these spiritual assistants help Mary to literally return to her roots. She will bring magic to her Aunt Lily’s secret garden, despite the claustrophobic urging of Colin’s almost fatally protective physician uncle Neville (Sam Ludwig).

The most awesome duo on stage at the Cerritos Center are the terrific young actors who do a bang-up job playing Mary Lennox and her cousin Colin. Ms. Rose has an engaging stage presence and is a pleasure to listen to whether singing or speaking. She’s an excellent actress and spoke each line with clear British English dialect, the most consistent in the show. She sounded especially good in “I Heard Someone Crying” singing with Archibald, Lily and the cast.

Her equal on all counts is Mr. Gutierrez as Colin. He is delightfully funny in his fits and tantrums and possesses a boy soprano voice as sweet as I’ve ever heard. Mr. Dawson must have spent a lot of time with these two. Their scenes together each land with a truth and intimacy that make these two the stars of the piece.

Mr. Nicandros is emotionally charged as Archibald, negotiating the character’s range of emotions deftly while handling the role’s vocal challenges with nuances that make for good storytelling. “In Lily’s Eyes,” his angst-filled duet with brother Neville is a high point of the first act, and contrasted beautifully with the enthusiastic story-telling and paternal love of “Race You to the Top of the Morning” in the second. Nicandros’s “Where in the World”/”How Could I Ever Know” sung with the lovely legit-voiced Ms. Dawson nearly brought me to tears.

There were times when the sound by Julie Ferrin would have benefited from a more subtle touch, although the echo-chamber effect worked quite well for the ghost singing — and many in the cast could use better diction, especially in chorale numbers. Still, Dawson inspires well-crafted and fairly restrained performances from some willing leads and a flawless ensemble. These incredible players radiate tender loving care.

photos Caught in the Moment Photography

The Secret Garden
3-D Theatricals
Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts
12700 Center Court Drive in Cerritos
ends on May 19, 2019
for tickets, call 714.589.2770 or visit 3-D

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