Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2003
Like millions of young girls, Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of my favorite authors when I was growing up. I confess that I vastly preferred the plucky Sara Crewe of A Little Princess (1905) to the sour Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden (1911) but in my adult years I recognize the superiority of the storytelling in the latter. I now believe that I would have been a better and happier person today if I had modeled myself more on the fiercely independent Mary than the subservient Sara.
Burnett’s book contains indelible images – Mary waking up to find herself the only living thing (save one black snake) in her parents’ home in India after a cholera epidemic; Mary holding tight to a lone candle as she discovers her weeping cousin Colin Craven in her uncle’s gloomy Yorkshire mansion in the middle of the night; Dickon and his animals; the tightly locked garden whose rebirth Burnett links so easily to the blossoming of Mary and Colin’s friendship, growth, and healing. Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music) managed to capture these images powerfully in their 1991 musical, while weaving in a stronger adult sub-plot, necessary because labor laws and equity rules make it impossible for child actors to carry an entire Broadway show.
The show as it is structured calls for only two actual children – Mary and Colin – and the Mac-Haydn has double-cast both roles. I saw Eileen O’Connor as Mary and Darrin French as Colin, and so my apologies to Amelia Millar and Jonathon Byron-Woodin, on whose performances I cannot comment.
O’Connor looks exactly like Mary Lennox should look – thin and pinched and unsmiling. She sang sweetly and performed flawlessly. Jimm Halliday has designed some really pretty Edwardian outfits in warm earth tones for Mary to wear. I am sure the dozens of little girls in the audience were delighted to see their beloved heroine brought so perfectly to life.
French is a fine boy soprano, and, with his naturally pale skin (bet he had to wear SPF 45 sunblock all summer!) and slender form, he can convincingly portray the sickly Colin. I did think his tantrum scene lacked volume though. If French can sing he can surely scream with more conviction.
And then there are all these grown-ups. There are living adults – Colin’s father (Mary’s uncle) Archibald Craven (John Saunders) and his brother (Colin’s uncle) Dr. Neville Craven (John Baker); Martha the housemaid (Karla Shook); crotchety old gardener Ben Weatherstaff (Jim Kidd); and repressed housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Kristen Clark) – and lots of dead adults – Mary’s parents Captain Albert (Nathaniel Suggs) and Rose (Kathryn Moore) Lennox and all of the closest friends in India referred to as “The Dreamers;” Mary’s Ayah (Lisa Carlin) and Fakir (Raymond Brown), and Colin’s mother and Archie’s dead wife, who is also Rose Lennox’s sister and therefore Mary’s aunt, Lily (Tiffany Thornton). If you are slightly confused, join the club. It is a little tricky to figure out who is dead and who is alive and who is related to who and how. The program provides a helpful synopsis to which I refer you. All of these performers are very good, and the focus on these older characters was necessary in the creation of a viable stage musical, but you sometimes wish the grown-ups would just go away and let you get on with the really interesting story, which is about the children.
It is a weakness in the show that the third child in Burnett’s story, the colorful Dickon, is played by an adult. Dickon is supposed to be older than Mary and Colin, who are ten, but he is certainly no older than 14. It is slightly discomforting to see a grown man indulging in childish or childlike magical rituals, and Chad Heuschober completely misses the mark in his portrayal of Dickon in the flamboyant style of a Las Vegas showman. Dickon’s magic is a deep, earth magic, not a flowing-cape-pulling-rabbits-out-of-hats magic. Heuschober should tone down the grandiose arm movements and concentrate on the real magic that is in nature.
Now that I have kvetched about the adults, let me praise them. Karlin and Brown barely utter a word, but they look fabulously exotic and really embody Mary’s past life in India. I found their performances and the believably ethnic dance numbers choreographed by Rusty Curcio vital in moving the plot and the evolution of Mary’s character along. Curcio’s device of using strips of scarlet cloth to indicate death by cholera is chillingly effective in the opening number.
Saunders brings Archie Craven’s unresolved grief vividly to life, and Baker is much better cast this time around as the repressed and confused Neville. Thornton is required to look and sound beautiful, which she does with grace. Shook is all grins and giggles as the irrepressibly cheerful illiterate Yorkshire lass Martha.
I keep waiting for someone to give the lovely and talented Kathryn Moore something more to do in Mac-Haydn productions. She is obviously a pro with lots to offer. Maybe State Fair will give her a shot at something more than a supporting role.
There is very little room at the Mac-Haydn for sets, but this time around Vaughn Patterson has done a good job of decorating the walls so that you feel as if you are out of doors.
“The Secret Garden” is definitely a post-modern musical, very different in style to what the Mac-Haydn usually produces. It is wonderful that they are able to change gears so seamlessly, as they will again when they return to the mid-20th century style of Rodgers and Hammerstein for State Fair. Director David Liedhold and Curcio have done a good job of keeping the large cast moving fluidly through the playing space, as the music moves through the story. It must have been fun for the performers to tackle something different and to give their tap shoes a rest for a few weeks.
The Secret Garden runs through August 17 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003