At first glance, the family friendly musical The Secret Garden, based on the wonderful novel of the same name from Frances Hodgson Burnett, may seem a somewhat odd choice for a dinner theatre presentation. True, it was a Broadway hit and a three time Tony award winner, but since its 1993 closure, it’s a show rarely seen in theatrical circles, not to mention that those who recall the story may remember that the setup is initially a downer. How brave, then, that Arizona Broadway Theatre should even attempt to present the musical on its Peoria stage, and how exciting the end result turns out to be. What has been the valley’s loss for several years is now most definitely our gain.
Long a children’s classic in its native England, The Secret Garden was originally called Mistress Mary, a nod to the nursery rhyme, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. Lyricist Marsha Norman cleverly uses this connection during the opening song where ghostly images of Mary’s past dance around her bed, quoting the line, adding the famous question, How does your garden grow? a moment underlining what is soon to develop in Mary’s life.
What we’re seeing is an echo of the past where young Mary Lennox who, like many privileged children of wealthy English families, lived in opulence in India. She awakens from a dream only to find that almost everyone she knew has died of cholera, including her parents. Shipped back to England to live in a large, Yorkshire manor with her hunchback uncle, who himself suffers from grief after the death of his beloved wife, Mary’s life changes dramatically.
Hodgson Burnett’s novel always hinted at something magical happening on the grounds of the largely depressing manor. Once Mary emerges from the confines of her new stately home and ventures into a secret garden hidden away behind a wall covered in overgrown bushes and bramble, the girl’s life changes, but it’s a change that affects not only the ten year old from India but also everyone in the household. As Mary’s garden grows, so does the healing power of life’s renewal for everyone around her in ways no one would expect.
Before anyone mistakes The Secret Garden for being a child’s book, principally for little girls, hold that thought. The Broadway show has kept faithful to the themes of the original story, but it does so in a way that manages to incorporate the adult characters into the adventure in equal measure, something the book did not.
The relationship between the uncle (Matthew Charles Thompson) and his brother, Neville (Jesse Berger) is explored in far more detail. The show develops a fresh connection between the adults and creates a new conflict regarding Neville’s feelings for his brother’s deceased wife. It also results in one of the best delivered songs where we hear the inner-most thoughts of the brothers as they reflect on Lily’s Eyes. In a duet, both men remark to themselves on the similarity between Mary and her deceased aunt. The song is a powerhouse balled, the kind that takes you by surprise by the sheer force of the soaring voices, and even though you might question how such a frail character as the uncle could sing in such a way, remember it’s what he’s thinking and feeling that we’re hearing, and there’s no limit to the force behind an emotionally charged thought.
Director Andy Meyers has produced a handsome looking production where Charles J. Triefloff’s scenic design moves smoothly from set to set, from house to garden and back again, while the action continues unhindered by lengthy pauses. There’s always a chance that the play’s Greek chorus, the ghostly images of those from Mary’s past, may confuse, but once you realize that these characters are aiding the story’s transition and even commenting on the action while observing Mary with a degree of parental concern, it all falls neatly into place.
Trisha Hart Ditsworth as Martha the chambermaid, Jordan Wolfe as Dickon her brother, and Tony Blosser as Ben the gardener, bravely attempt the thankless task of speaking with a northern Yorkshire accent, where residents even today still use old-fashioned words like thou and thee in their sentences. It’s a difficult accent even for a Brit to imitate, and while no one from Yorkshire or the British Isles would ever be fooled, the impression of people from a northern English locale is nicely established, adding a humorous sense of fun and color to an already colorful and uplifting production.
Despite the story’s downbeat setup, the show never focuses on what could have been a tale of ill-health and sadness. Instead, it’s an uplifting account of growth, trust, honesty and eventually love where Mary’s life, just like the secret garden hidden away on the manor’s grounds, grows into something quite special, as does this production. When Mary remarks on the ghosts in her life, her uncle replies, “They’re only a ghost if someone alive holds on to them.”
Be prepared; once the petals of an English country garden fall from above in a kaleidoscopic array of color while characters below finally embrace, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
For more information regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ABT website.