“Clusters of crocus, Purple and gold; Blankets of pansies, out from the cold. Lilies and iris, safe from the chill–safe in my garden, Snowdrops so still….”
There’s a charm being conjured on “The Cripe Stage” at “The Chance Theater” (at “The Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center”) in Anaheim California—and it all centers around a garden! Indeed, there’s an added pleasure for Southern California Theater-goers with the onset of the holiday season this year, as “The Chance” marks the return of an old favorite with an enchanting new production of the Tony-Award Winning, “The Secret Garden”! Based on the timeless children’s novel of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and hailed as “the quintessential holiday musical for all ages”, “The Secret Garden” features a book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, with music by Lucy Simon. Brimming with sumptuous melodies, baronial choreography, and a heartwarming story of faith, forgiveness, and renewal, this elegant new production is the perfect panacea to squelch any rumblings of your inner-cynic, while warming the heart, soul, and psyche; it’s the gift you should be giving yourself (–not to mention any young theater-enthusiasts on your list) this year!
While Burnett’s story has all the makings of a first-class Gothic ghost-story, just when we’re primed for some thrills and chills, she pleasantly takes her narrative in a whole different–and decidedly more life-affirming direction. Norman’s libretto and lyrics, teamed with Simon’s often striking melodies play to exactly these strengths. The duo has also incorporated many extended musicalized sequences, giving this the comprehensive feel of a sublime operetta rather than simply your standard tin-pan alley “musical”. The story follows the adventures of eleven-year-old “Mary Lennox”, a saturnine British girl born and raised in colonial India. When her parents die (along with the rest of her ‘settlement” in Bombay) due to a cholera outbreak, she is sent back to Yorkshire to live with her only living relative–a reclusive Uncle named “Archibald Craven”, (the widower of her mother’s dearly departed sister, “Lily”) at his gloomy, if palatial, estate on the Yorkshire moors: “Misselthwaite Manor”. A large, once stately mansion like “Misselthwaite” is sure to be teeming with a host of ghosts, spirits, and lingering souls (including that of her Aunt Lily herself,) and this creaky old ‘near-Citadel’ of a dwelling is certainly no different. Once at her new home, Mary at length happens upon Archibald’s invalid son (Mary’s cousin) young “Colin” who, told he is doomed to perish due to his supposed ‘illness’, has literally been locked away in his room, forbidden from experiencing the outside world (nor seeing anybody who exists in it!) Even his own father can only bear to see him when the lad’s asleep (or at least is believed to be!) “In ten years have I ever awakened the boy?!” Archibald snaps at his brother, Neville Craven—the boy’s Doctor, when he’s cautioned not to disturb the youngster’s much-needed ‘rest’. However, with the help of these attendant spirits—called “Dreamers” here, and a few totem animals such as a friendly Robin, Mary, with the aid of a rustic gardener’s assistant by the unlikely name of “Dickon” uncover the mystery of the manor’s magical garden, which has been virtually abandoned and locked away since “Lily’s” untimely death while in childbirth. In doing so, they eventually bring new vibrancy and life to the entire neglected estate, on top of Mary’s improved outlook and Colin’s robust health–all of which blossom along-side the flowers. The production’s parting summation refreshingly strikes just the right balance of beautiful and sincere without a touch of maudlin-ism, leaving many (if not most) of the First-Nighters in attendance heart-struck in the very best way!
Building on previous work of credited Co-Directors Casey Long and KC Wilkerson (who also serves as the Production Designer,) Associate Director Miguel Cardenas has thrown in a few unique touches of his own, keeping this version, (ostensibly an ‘Encore” that’s part of the theater’s annual “Holiday Literary Production” cycle) fresh and innovative. Moreover, the ensemble of “Dreamers” amply support the action, popping in and out of the goings-on to frequently provide vocal support to many of the individual musical numbers as well as the intricate melodic-segments. For instance: the conclusion of Act One is transformed into a surreal (or better put, ‘nightmarish’) sequence set at the height of a furious thunder-storm, wherein Mary recalls once and for all the fateful occurrences in India that led to her parents demise from Cholera, as one-by-one “The Dreamers” pull out red ribbons (signifying their mortally succumbing to the illness) as they then fade-away. Yet this quickly draws her to the climactic moment when she finally discovers the hidden door to the garden. Bathed in intense white light, she bravely enters in as the act draws to completion. In Act Two they are drawn together again, each holding aloft barren branches, making them, in effect, the garden itself! Along the way, they also furnish some top-notch group harmonizing such as heard in the reprise of “A Bit Of Earth” toward the show’s finale. In addition, Choreographer Robert Hahn has created several small intervals of dance and movement that are, for the most part, themselves refined and often indirect—arising as they do naturally out of the situation, rather than any prescribed downbeat from the omnipresent piano. His one substantially “big” dance number of the show comes as part of the second half with the riveting “Come Spirit, Come Charm”, when Mary and Dickon bring Colin into the garden for the first time. There, they’re joined by the rest of the “Dreamers” to try to raise the spirits of health and strength in the boy. Part “Highland Fling”, part Indian “Garba Dance” (combined with a few moves a whirling dervish might employ to enter his trance) the end result is an enthralling mix that’s incredible and unforgettable to behold!
On opening night, “Mary Lennox” was played by Peyton Kirkner (a role shared with Maya Grace Fischbein throughout the run.) This is a demanding role for an actress of any age, but Miss Kirkner heroically rises to its challenges, and fulfills its every promise! “I’ve never seen a child sit so still or look so old” Archibald’s housekeeper “Mrs. Medlock” observes of the girl when she is sent to fetch her. Still, even in her petulance, Kirkner admirably allows “Mary’s” vulnerability to shine through. “I Heard Someone Crying” is our first chance to authentically hear how capably she can interpret a lyric and infuse it with feeling, which is soon followed by her part in “Show Me The Key”, as her new friend “Dickon” tries to teach her that the true way to speak to nature is through Yorkshire verbiage. This latter undertaking is both amusing and enjoyable, and by its finish, she pulls out all the stops heartily winning us over so when “Mary” miraculously, does find the object she’s seeking, it’s a victory–not just for her, but for those of us watching to boot! Acting-wise she proves especially clever too. During the introductory lines leading up to “A Piece Of Earth” when “Mary” asks her Uncle if she may start a garden of her own, Kirkner very subtly conveys this desire with a slight Yorkshire syntax –a brilliant acting choice even performers with far more stage-time under their belts wouldn’t think to do! After intermission, she effectively launches the second act with “The Girl I Mean To Be”—a pristine solo which again reminds us (as if it were needed,) exactly how skilled a singer this young performer truly is! Likewise on opening night the role of Mary’s cousin “Colin Craven” was taken on by Jason Brewer (which he similarly shares with Jack Reid.) Brewer too, is quite a talented force to be reckoned with here, gifted with considerable vocal ability and some impressive comic timing. In lesser hands this character could come off as weak or pathetically self-involved or self-pitying. Instead, his tactic is to demonstrate the underlying strength and tenacity “Colin” really possesses (despite any protests to the contrary.) Through this we glean that the boy has no intention whatsoever of simply passing away–or even moldering away in his room for very long. This also sagaciously wins him over to us making his ultimate return to health all the more gratifying and heroic. (“You’re too nasty to die!” Mary fumes at him upon their first meeting.) Vocally, Brewer particularly amazes with “Round Shouldered Man” (a.k.a “All That’s Good And True”) then again with “Lift Me Up”–his part of the key “Come To My Garden” duet (opposite the spirit of his mother.) immediately after, newly ‘awakened’, our chap Colin decisively gains the courage to cast-off the covers and get out of bed for the first time in years (–and yes, it’s a very affecting moment all around!) On opening night, over the course of their shared scenes, the chemistry between both young performers portraying the cousins was considerable and engaging—one of the many ‘plus-points’ the show can boast.
Stanton Kane Morales too, has a cultivated and resounding voice, and an equally formidable acting prowess as Mary’s Uncle “Archibald Craven”, and he easily makes this role entirely his own! His opening salvo, “I Heard Someone Singing” (–a haunting counterpoint to Mary’s “I Heard Someone Crying”) validates these assertions right off, giving us a thorough introduction to this tormented soul as he ponders—half hopefully, half agonizingly: “Maybe it was Lily”. “This house is haunted—day and night” he later warns Mary, but it’s apparent he’s actually talking more about himself than his melancholy abode. Morales also electrifies with “A Little Bit Of Earth”—maintaining a terrific sense of introspection while still vigorously delivering some high-caliber ‘money notes”; shortly after, he does it all over again with his part of “Lily’s Eyes”, before once more prevailing with “Archibald’s” bitter-sweet story-book tale, “Race You To The Top Of The Morning”. Sung to the sleeping child he’s too daunted to face otherwise, he still dares to dream of the ‘impossible’ day things can be better for both father and son: “Be brave, son and know that I long to race you to the top of the morning! Come, sit on my shoulders and ride, run and hide– I’ll come and find you…climb hills to remind you: I love you, my boy at my side!” As his younger brother, “Dr. Neville Craven”, the man charged with the care of “Colin”, Tucker Boyes’ interpretation is more sinister—even with a touch of avarice, than has been seen in recent mountings of the show, but it’s also very effective. He’s the clear-cut villain of the piece—wounded just as much as his brother, but content to take it to a darker and more seething place. So too, Boyes favors intensity over drawn-out phrasing for his part in “Lily’s Eyes”–a dual soliloquy between both brothers through which we learn that he too, once burned for “Lily” whom they each realize the girl “Mary” unsettlingly resembles: “She has her eyes! She has Lily’s hazel eyes. Those eyes that loved my brother–never me! Those eyes that never saw me, never knew I longed to hold her close, to live at last in Lily’s Eyes!” Bit by bit this song grows steadily leading to a grandly passionate climax which leaves even those watching and hearing it, breathless! (Think of it as a solid triumph–times two!) Subsequently, Boyes also makes the most of his dramatic Second Act chanson, “Disappear” as he (also passionately) tries to deny Mary’s allegations once she has confronted him what may be the real cause for his so-called ‘concern’ for his nephew’s well-being.
As the object of both Archibald and Neville’s obsession, Laura M. Hathaway is nothing short of completely remarkable as the spirit, “Lily”. Frequent visitors to “The Chance” are sure to know just how incredible a voice Ms. Hathaway has, and with this she seems to have found just the right role for her considerable artistic capabilities. This she makes clear right from her first perfunctory notes in the prologue, then while taking part in several Gold-Medal worthy duets. Most notable of these is the eloquent and emotive “Come To My Garden”, which “Lily” sings opposite her ‘son’ “Colin”, urging him to take a chance and taste life before his opportunity to do so is past. Arguably among the most influential of all the scenes (and songs) in the show, Hathaway and Brewer jointly made the rafters ring and the stage glow with its performance! With Morales, both ‘sides” of their transcendent duet–at turns playful and touching, titled “A Man Came To My Valley” (recalling the pair’s unexpected and unlikely courtship) is a major success for each, and a bona fide highlight of the show too. Morale’s also scores initiating his 11 O’clock declaration “Where In The World”, as Archibald, trying vainly for a respite from the memories that fuel his despair, has fled to Paris where he agonizes: “Where can I go that you won’t find me?! Why can’t I find a place to hide? Why do you have to chase me–Haunt me? Every step there beside me…” This then segues into Lily’s “How Could I Ever Know”, which is Ms. Hathaway’s crowning glory of the evening, giving us in the audience a satisfying and much appreciated exclamation-point to her entire performance!
Meanwhile, Amy Tilson-Lumetta provides a boost of jovial support as the big-spirited “Martha”—the housemaid with a lively personality and voice to match, who becomes Mary’s first real friend as “Misselthwaite”. Her first act ditty, “A Fine White Horse” is an excellent mood-lightener and exuberantly bestowed, and it’s within this that canny listeners are also likely to hear the first vague references to the titular garden that will come to mean so much to Mary as the plot unfolds. In Act Two she intervenes at the most crucial time, giving our heroine the strength and support she needs at what seems to be her lowest, with the inspirational “Hold On”–a song that reveals some of the most pithy and dynamic lyrics the score contains: When you see a man who’s raging, and he’s jealous and he fears, that you’ve walked through walls he’s hid behind for years; what you do then is you tell yourself to wait it out–and say ‘It’s this day-Not Me–that’s bound to go away!” (Here too, Lumetta chooses the more restrained route, making what she expresses far more compelling!) Christopher Diem is also a stand-out in his own right as Martha’s brother and Assistant Groundskeeper, “Dickon”. A somewhat mystical character, Diem plays these more unusual elements (which could too-easily appear eccentric or comical) as very natural—he believes this, so we believe with him. Comparably gifted with a robust voice beyond his callow years, he handily makes this simple country urchin’s opening salvo, “Winter’s On The Wing”, a delightfully memorable interlude (‘Aye and a genuine crowd-pleaser at that’!) He also makes full use of this sincerity and believability in respect to his Act Two spot-light number “Wick”, in which he interjects a nice touch of “Pop” styling to his interpretation that just may have you asking “Harry Who?” or “Bieber What?!” This tuneful range and flexibility helps greatly in elevating this buoyant intermezzo into the cherry atop the theatrical Sundae! What’s more, like Ms. Lumetta, all through his performance, Diem also presents an ‘on-the-money’ Yorkshire accent gratis the tutelage of Dialect-Coach Glenda Morgan Brown.
As for the technical contributions, working in conjunction with Associate Production Designer Masako Toburu, K.C. Wilkerson’s set design is absolutely awe-inspiring—recalling a shabby, ‘yellow-around-the-edges’ old Manse that has seen far better days, with bits of antique-looking odds and ends like dull-brass and broken suitcases strewn about, and long-dead strands of weeds and branches creeping (or having crept) their way into every shadowy nook and cranny. This effect is augmented by numerous ‘projections” that almost subliminally direct focus and enliven the action. These take the form of everything from Victorian wallpaper to vast gray expanses of the desolate moors, and then in due course, the summery cornucopia of blossoms and greenery once the ‘garden” has at last been ‘revived’. Creditable too, are Erika C. Miller’s costume designs, which are appropriately stately as befits a story set amidst Britain’s Aristocratic Edwardian era of the early twentieth century. While at first glance they appear bold and majestic, keep looking and you may get the unsettling impression that over and above this, they also tend to be a tad funereal–subtly but ingeniously pointing to the fundamental somber theme of the first half. Furthermore, the single piano situated up-stage right (with Musical Director Bill Strongin stalwartly at the keyboard) is shrewdly camouflaged by a mini-wall of weathered boards, making it fade-into the overall set. Although this is virtually the only musical accompaniment used in the production, it extraordinarily seems like so much more!
“When a thing is ‘Wick’, it has a life about it,” Dickon croons to Mary at one point about a Yorkshire term for energy, which she doesn’t (yet) understand; this production most definitely is ‘Wick’! After Previewing from November 24th through December 1st, “The Secret Garden” officially opened on Saturday evening, December 2nd 2017, where it is slated to play through December 23rd 2017 on the “Cripe Stage” at “The Chance Theater” @ Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center, located at 5522 E. La Palma Avenue in Anaheim, California. Showtimes are Thursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 PM. Tickets and reservations can be obtained by calling: (888) 455-4212, or on-line by visiting: http://www.ChanceTheater.com (Special Discounts for this engagement are available for Seniors, Students and the Military.)
Production Photos by Doug Catiller at “True Image Studio” (www.trueimagestudio.com) Courtesy Of “The Chance Theater”; Special Thanks To Casey Long, KC Wilkerson, Miguel Cardenas, Robert Hahn, Bill Strongin, And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chance Theater’s” 2017 Production Of “The Secret Garden” For Making This Story Possible.