The Secret Garden
Photo by Mark Garvin

The Secret Garden

Arden Theatre, Philadelphia

Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Through June 26, 2016

“The Secret Garden” is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story of young heroine Anne Lennox who is orphaned in India after her parents die in a cholera epidemic and she becomes the reluctant charge of her Uncle Archie back in England. It is a story of loss, confusion, pathos and finally enchantment. The 1992 musical adaptation is by composer Lucy Simon, with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman. It is a challenging piece but proves a fine fit for the Arden Theatre Company, in a new production co-conceived by director Terry Nolen and design wizard Jorge Cousineau that showcases magical stagecraft and state of the art tech.

Jorge Cousineau’s sets depicting the estate and the garden environs are constructed in miniature and on transom at the edge of the stage where a cameraman operates a live mini-cam feed on a screen as the story unfolds.

Mary Lennox has a hard time adjusting to her new life on her uncle’s scary estate. He lives as a recluse, feeling ostracized because of a physical deformity and his life shattered when his wife Lily died giving birth to their son Colin ten years before.

Colin is also sickly and confined to his bed at the hands of Archie’s brother, his doctor, who has nefarious motives. Mary hears his crying and investigates, and happens upon Colin, and they immediately start fighting and just as immediately become fast friends. She convinces Colin that he is not really an invalid who is going to die. She even channels Hindu healing incantations she learned in India.

Mary (quite contrary) also befriends an elderly gardener named Dickon who tends to the grounds. He teaches her about gardening and tells about her Aunt Lily. When she eventually gets the key to the hidden garden, life is renewed for her and her adopted family.

The score has a jumpy structure in Act I, wending in fragmented fashion through many of the scenes (sometimes awkwardly) but otherwise with wonderful musical variety – from English lyrical ballads to Indian classicism. Act II has a more straightforward musical garden variety of character numbers and a couple of stand-alone Broadway belters.

Bailey Ryon is a powerhouse actor- singer as Mary and Hudson Orfe is equally wonderful as Colin, an irresistible team so at ease in some intricate duets. Steve Pacek is the most earnest nature boy Dickon, with a powerhouse voice and great chemistry with Ryon in several duets including “Winter’s on the Wing” and” Show Me.” Elisa Matthews’ reaches rich, silvery tones that are perfect for the “Come To My Garden” dream duet with Colin.”

Both musically and lyrically, Jeff Coon has a lot to mount for the sad interior world of Uncle Archie, with its sharp upper range, even with one or two shaky musical moments, he is in complete tenor command.
Alex Keiper may have a squirrelly brogue as the un-starchy chamber maid Martha, but easily made up for with heart and one boffo showstopper called “Hold On.” Jim Hogan has dastardly charm as Neville and gives his baritone just enough vocal wryness in key moments to hint at his schemes. The fine supporting cast includes Sarah Gliko, James Stabp, Sally Mercer, Anthony Lawton, Nikil Saboo, Joanne Javien, Scott Greer and Erika Amato.

The new orchestration by Larry Lees is in total support of the singers with fine detailing by musical director Ryan Touhey and conductor Amanda Morton leading the 11 piece orchestra. Between the dazzling visuals, Nolen’s inventive direction and this cast, yes, every corner of this theatrical garden is in bloom in the Arden.

Philadelphia ,
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.