adapted by Marsha Norman
Gateway Theatre, Richmond
December 9 - January 2

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is certainly one of the classic children’s novels. Along with the Peter Rabbit books and anything by Robert Muensch, it was required bedtime reading for many years when my kids were young. The story of an orphaned girl raised in a cold, unhappy home in the Yorkshire moors where she finds salvation for herself, another child and a bereft adult through a dead woman’s abandoned garden never failed to excite and move the read-to or the readers in my house. The Gateway’s production of this large-scale musical adaptation is as handsome and accomplished as any you’d expect to see on a major stage around the city. But be warned—this is not exactly a kids’ show.

When young Mary Lennox, the sole survivor of a cholera epidemic that has wiped out her family in India, is sent to England to live with her Uncle Archie, she soon discovers that he has his own problems. His beloved wife Lily died in childbirth, leaving a sickly son, Colin, whose care Archie has given over to his physician brother, Neville. Archie is permanently depressed, and Colin has been bedridden for ten years, thinking that he’s a cripple, near death, encouraged by the frustrated doctor who overmedicates him and insists he stay permanently in bed. Through alliances with various proles—the housekeeper, her nature-boy brother Dickon, and the Cockney gardener—Mary revitalizes Lily’s forbidden garden, and with its help she brings Colin and Archie back to life, heals the wounds in the family, and finds a new family of her own.

The Secret Garden has been adapted for the stage by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman, with music by Lucy Simon (Carly’s sister). Norman is best known for ‘Night Mother and Getting Out, two of the darkest plays in the contemporary American canon. True to form, she has emphasized the shadows in her version, not the light. And she gives more stage time to the adults than the children. Mary is haunted by the ghosts of her past, continually surrounded by her dead parents and servants from India (whom she doesn’t see), and Archie is haunted by his dead wife. In fact Archie and Lily’s story is given as much weight as Mary’s, and much more than Colin’s. The magical garden itself gets short shrift in both the script and the production. Combined with a musical score that leans toward the semi-operatic, there’s not really a whole lot of fun to be had by the youngsters at this show, especially if they aren’t already familiar with the story.

That said, David Adams’ production is pretty amazing. Though he uses only three Equity actors in the cast of 25, the singing is splendid and the acting (and English accents) solid. Matt Palmer as Archie anchors the show, his beautiful voice and intensely pained character reminding me at times of Jean Valjean in Les Miz. Evelyn Thatcher is a beautiful Lily, her presence haunting and blessing the house behind gilded picture frames, and her gorgeous operatic soprano soaring over the other voices. Pretty Ashley Macdonald also has a lovely voice, though her Mary lacks a little emotional range when she’s not being angry. Excellent support from Jeremy Crittenden as the playful Dickon, John Payne as the kindly gardener, Lindsay Sterk as curmudgeonly Neville, Natalia Sudeyko as Colin, and the entire ensemble. Kevin Michael Cripps as Mary’s dead father has a particularly sweet voice and the choral numbers are powerful, though a muddy sound system often obscures individual lyrics. Adams creates beautiful stage pictures with his large cast in Rebekka Sorenson’s period costumes, aided immensely by three ballerinas—“Spirits of the Garden.” The orchestra under the direction of Allen Stiles is first rate.

Phillip Tidd’s beautiful, ghostly two-story set is fine for as long as the story remains inside the house. But it was disappointing to see the garden represented by a lone spindly tree pushed downstage and dressed with a few leaves and garlands representing blooming roses when spring arrives at the end. Shane Droucker’s lighting with its swirling shadows and multi-coloured gels is one of the real stars of the show. More colour, more kids and more garden is what I’d want to make this more than a bedtime story for adults.

Jerry Wasserman

The Secret Garden runs Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 with 2:00 matinees on Dec. 18, 19, 26 and 28 (the latter a benefit for the Actors’ Fund of Canada). No shows on Christmas Eve or Christmas day.

last updated: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 5:41 PM
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