Who among us doesn’t love a good secret? Now, the bunch at 3-D Theatricals are imparting an incredible one…and it all involves a garden. Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s popular 1911 novel of the same name, “The Secret Garden”, which recently bowed over at “The Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts” in Cerritos, California, is the latest offering from Southern California’s multi-award-winning theater company. Featuring a Book and Lyrics by Marsha Norman with Music by Lucy Simon, this stunning stage adaptation is the winner of three 1991 Tony Awards–including “Best Book Of A Musical” and “Best Featured Actress In A Musical” (for original star Daisy Egan who, at eleven-years-old is the youngest actress ever to win a Tony.) A sincere and heartwarming, feel-good story of forgiveness, friendship and renewal, 3-D Theatricals’ new, visually-striking production is Directed by 3-D’s Co-founder and Executive/Artistic Director, T.J. Dawson, with Choreography by Leslie Stevens and Musical Direction by Allen Everman (who also serves as the show’s Conductor.)
Set in the formative days of the 20th Century, “The Secret Garden” is the quintessential musical for all ages, presenting the story of young “Mary Lennox’, a British girl born and raised in colonial India. When a sudden cholera outbreak claims the lives of the ten-year-old’s parents (along with just about everyone else she knows,) she is sent to rural “Yorkshire” in England to live at the desolate estate of her reclusive ‘Uncle-by-Marriage’—a veritable stranger to her, ‘Archibald Craven’ (the still grieving widower of her late Aunt Lily,) and his invalid son, “Colin”–whom he keeps locked away ‘safe’ from the outside world and it’s presumed dangers. Ostensibly a novella for kids, the story nonetheless contains considerable depth and moodiness (Think of it as kind of like “Wuthering Heigh-lites For Children”!) Norman’s libretto is chock full of twists, turns, and suspense while staying appreciably close to Hodson’s classic book. Surrounded by a bevy of “Ghosts”, ‘Earth Spirits”, and other Purgatorial souls (—some phantoms, some in the flesh,) “Mary”—with the help of “Dickon”, the Estate’s young gardener’s assistant, delves into the mystery of the manor’s bewitching but forgotten garden–kept walled up and locked for so long, even the entrance has become over grown and virtually lost over years of neglect. Vowing to restore it, in the process she discovers the power of hope, determination and the magic needed to make love and hope grow again (—not to mention the miracles she brings about for the garden, and the garden for her!)
3-D Theatricals’ gives this one the treatment such a monumental, near-epic tale of this caliber fully deserves. Dawson’s direction maintains a fairly brisk pace (or maybe it just seems that way because what he’s managed to devise onstage is so sweeping and engrossing!) Indeed, in many ways “The Secret Garden” plays more like a full-on Operetta than a simple musical, with the score absolutely overflowing with beautiful soaring ballads, and glorious ‘Bel Canto’ chorales. Most of these are largely sung by the ‘spirits’ of the departed (including Mary’s parents) who repeatedly gather to act as a sort of ‘Greek Chorus’, contributing some required narration to move the story along, or provide commentary on the on-stage exploits. Aiding T.J. in this enterprise is the ornate (and sometimes unorthodox) choreography by Ms. Stevens. Sometimes she blends more familiar dance steps with those you’d never expect—but all to an exquisite outcome! Upon being seated, one is greeted by the animated ‘show-drop’ extending the length of the stage, displaying the baronial “Misselthwaite Manor” in the throes of a bitter snow storm! Even looking at it is bound to give you chills, but the effect is in keeping with the Cerritos auditorium’s over-all splendor. Once the house lights dim, even the opening is ethereal as the spirit of “Lily”, the Mansion’s deceased ‘Chatelain’ —suspended above the stage–sings out her clarion call in praise of her garden, even as the action changes to India. There we find little “Mary Lennox” literally sleeping through the cholera epidemic that swiftly overtakes the entire colony of wealthy expatriates and Military personnel which she calls home, as signified through a band of elegantly dressed, gracefully waltzing couples who, with the abrupt unveiling of red-ribbons (symbolizing their rapid infection and hasty demise,) merely dance off-stage one-by-one. Immediately following, “The House Upon The Hill” is a dynamic effort evidencing some rousing ensemble work (which they pretty much do all through the goings-on!) The Act break (occurring at the height of a furious storm) is appropriately dramatic, leading our young heroine to stumble-upon that which she seeks most—the hidden doorway to the garden she’s heard so much about. Later, set under a blazing full-moon, “Come Spirit, Come Charm” is a spectacular amalgam of willowy Victorian ballroom maneuvers and the quality of sufi-meditative motions a whirling dervish in Delhi or Istanbul would envy. Staged as “Mary”, “Dickon” and his sister “Martha” bring “Colin” out to the garden one evening, they’re soon joined by the ghost of “Mary’s” Ayah” (–what she called her native Governess in India—also a victim of the epidemic,) and other phantoms as they raise the spirit of both the garden and of “Colin” himself. Strange, intriguing, and unquestionably unique, it’s a rare and compelling moment post-intermission. Once the titular garden is ultimately revealed, it is most definitely worth waiting for! The finale, (and the polished way Dawson has staged it) is about as touching and triumphant as they come, with the spirits slowly exiting the garden–its doorway now bathed in ‘rapturous’ white light, ready to rest at last.
Gifted with a crisp, clean—but profoundly expressive voice, the driver of all the action is Glory Joy Rose as “Mary Lennox”. Somberly hinting at the unspoken ‘back story’ of this young lass with nothing more than a look or some curt phrasing, through this we glean that the only reason she survived the outbreak is because her folks weren’t really a part of her life much—nor she theirs. As it also happens, “Mary” had only seen (or knew of) her late Aunt’s garden from a picture of “Lily” which the girl brought back with her from India. At the other end of the talent spectrum, Miss Rose also has impeccable comedic timing to boot, being able to get the most humor out of more than a few of her reaction lines by way of the slyest, subtlest delivery. “I Heard Someone Crying” is a top-flight introduction to her singing talents, while her part in “Show Me The Key” (sung to a persistent robin that “Dickon” suggests may be trying to tell her something,) is a win both for her as well as for anyone listening! She also pristinely dispatches the Act Two opener “The Girl I Mean To Be”—a brief but affecting soliloquy through song: “I need a place where I can go, where I can whisper what I know…a place where I can bid my heart be still, and it will mind me; a place where I can go when I am lost, and there I’ll find me…” Staged as a buoyant ‘Garden Party’—the feel she gives it is bright and serene (until we realize it’s only a dream—and one that’s about to turn ominous!)
As Mary’s ‘Uncle’ “Archibald Craven”, Dino Nicandros—a proven talent across numerous So Cal Stages–has plenty of opportunities to impress and even amaze early on—and impress and amaze he most assuredly does! His contribution to “I Heard Someone Crying” and “A Girl In The Valley” verify (as if it were needed,) just how brilliant a voice he has; more than just a capable singer though, his ‘take’ on “Archibald” is multi-faceted and refreshingly more sympathetic. Here’s a man with a heart—which, although it may be broken, continues to beat with an inherent (albiet somewhat stifled) goodness and humanity. This he divulges with “Archibald’s” reflective refrain, “A Little Bit Of Earth”–far and away a major highlight of Act One. Conveyed with prodigious depth and soulfulness, through it he provides us some significant insights to who he is as a main character along the way. In Act Two, his touching “Race You To The Top Of The Morning” is infused with tenderness and hope as “Archibald” visits “Colin’s” room to tell the lad a bedtime story—but only once he’s asleep; it is only then, and under these conditions, that he can bear to actually tell his son, “I Love You”: “Be brave son, and know that I long to race you to the top of the morning!” he sings to the sleeping lad; “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 son “Colin Craven”, Evan Gutierrez himself is in great voice, and he paints the boy as ‘oh, so proper’ (and maybe even a bit Hitchcockian!) Cleverly though, his “Colin” is not at all a victim, but more demanding in his supposed ‘delicate’ condition; it takes Mary—a child just as hardheaded as he, to get through to him. His song, “Round Shouldered Man” is full-voiced and all-around exceptional–easily winning us over to “Colin’s” side no matter how unreasonable or quarrelsome he may (at times) behave. Gutierrez also shines with his part in “Lift Me Up”—sung opposite Jeanette Dawson as the “possibly dreamed” ‘spectre’ of his mother, “Lily”. Confirming once again that she resolutely is 3-D Theatricals’ ‘Secret Weapon”, Ms. Dawson positively astounds in her role as the ghost of “Colin’s” late Mother and “Archibald’s dearly departed Wife, and this is, without a doubt, a part that fits her formidable talents on all levels. What is more, this duet is her key moment occurring in the second act, commencing with her captivating chanson, “Come To My Garden”, as she bids her son to throw away fear and to venture out—not just outside into her resurrected, reinstated garden, but eventually into the whole world beyond it. (Frankly, THIS is worth the admission alone, but it becomes more stirring yet, when “Colin” joins in with his matching declaration!) Both singers’ voices match and compliment one another’s wonderfully with the effect nothing short of breathtaking. Subsequently Dawson prevails again shortly after, with Jennifer Cannon as her ‘sister’ (Mary’s mother) “Rose” and Travis Leland as Mary’s father “Albert”, who join together for the lavish—almost reverential–reprise of “A Bit Of Earth”. Combined, they create such a high-octane intermezzo you can practically feel the energy emanating from the stage. Prior to this, while the first act gives us more modest drips and drabs of her stupendous singing ability toward the show’s beginning, it isn’t until “A Girl In The Valley” that she’s at last able to give a full and magnificent measure of its power while affording us a glimpse into “Lily” and “Archibald’s” courtship.
(Before they’re through, the number expands into an enchanting dance interlude in itself.) Another superb duet for the pair, titled “How Could I Ever Know?” comes on the heels of a frantic and despairing plea from “Archibald” called “Disappear”, as he begs for release from the bottom of Craven’s tortured soul. When “Lily” ‘materializes’ to the pulsating percussive underscoring like a bold and brave heartbeat as an answer to his prayer, she finally strides out of the shadows and blue-gray half-light to reach out to him. Their climatic—and fully operatic—crescendo is a rare thing for any musical these days, and thoroughly unforgettable here! Once concluded though, “Archibald” is a changed man—better, much stronger and determined to make things right by both Colin and Mary.
Meanwhile, Brandon Root is similarly a true stage presence as the adolescent gardener’s assistant, “Dickon Sowerby”. In full command of a booming and robust voice of his own that stunningly fills “Cerritos Center’s” cavernous auditorium. Root puts this to excellent use enlivening his ‘duel descants’, starting with “Winters On The Wing”–a half song, half incantation, then again with his part in “When A Thing Is Wick”, as “Dickon” teaches “Mary” the fine art of gardening: “When a thing is wick, it has a light around it (Maybe not a light that you can see,) but hiding down below, a spark’s asleep inside it, waiting for the right time to be seen; so you clear away the dead parts, so the tender buds can form, loosen up the earth and let the roots get warm…” Energetic and lively, it’s a first-class mood elevator (“We’ll have the grandest garden to be seen!” Mary grins at the songs finish, optimistic again.) Also sporting a spot-on Yorkshire dialect (gratis the assistance of dialect coach Caitlin Muelder) Renna Nightingale too, provides her share of unforgettable moments as the good-natured housemaid (and “Dickon’s” older sibling,) “Martha Sowerby”: “What IS this language you’re speaking?!” Mary confronts her upon their initial meeting (earning a big laugh in the process!) Possessing a nice, contemporary song-style, her cheery little ditty, “If I Had A Fine White Horse” is fun and also lightens the mood considerably: “They say that there’s a maze where once you enter, there you stay; for certain we’d get lost and they’d come lookin’ for our bones (–and find us sometime late next week, and bring us tea and scones!)” However, it’s her eleventh-hour advice to Mary, called “Hold On”, which inspires the girl with much-needed words of encouragement just when things look their darkest, is where Nightingale’s phenomenal vocal ability is strongest felt: “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…it’s not over ‘til it’s won!” she asserts.
Sam Ludwig is also remarkable as the more-than-slightly sinister “Dr. Neville Craven”. The younger brother of “Archibald”, we learn he gave up his practice to fully tend to his ostensibly ‘sickly” nephew. One of the major challenges of this role is how “Neville” (at the outset) seems genuinely concerned for the boy, but after a while he betrays a distinct (–and decidedly corrupt,) ‘angle’ given his single-minded need for control. If “Colin” never achieves a fully functioning adulthood, the ‘good doctor’ will be the sole inheritor of his brother’s estate” (but frustratingly, only “Mary” can see, let alone dare to acknowledge it.) To top it off, we also find out that he also harbored an unrequited love for “Lily”: “She has her eyes! She has MY 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…” ‘Neville’ laments of his pain over her loss, and how it’s even exacerbated by her niece’s unforeseen arrival, and what he sees in her. A sublime manifesto in its own right, it quickly becomes a sumptuous duet between the two brothers when “Archibald” has his say. Laudable support is also furnished by Jillian Doyle, who is the very picture of surliness and inhospitality as the taciturn Housekeeper of “Misselthwaite”, “Mrs. Medlock”. It is she who is sent to pick up “Mary” from the train-station–warning her about what to expect from the manor, and more specifically, from her peculiar and morose uncle. Likewise, Tracy Lore’s turn as “Mrs. Winthrop”, a stodgy Headmistress of a school “Neville” plans to ship “Mary” off to, may be brief but it makes a terrific impact!
The “Wagnerian” sets by Stephen Gifford are a wonder unto themselves—those involving “Misselthwaite Manor” are fittingly stately and spacious, where incorporeal figures even glimmer within the shrubbery! Through the use of a large turntable anchored center-stage, the idea of motion or changes of scene are also efficaciously implied. His crowning glory though, comes in the closing scene, once the garden is ‘unearthed’ and ‘awakened’ in its full, awesome majesty —awash in bright colors and all-around splendor! Augmenting his work are Andrew Nagy’s often eye-popping projections that essentially bring the environment to life, via slowly floating clouds or soaring birds or even butterflies flitting about. (In fact, this is another case of 3-D Theatricals’ reaping maximum benefits through the use of digitally engineered moving-imagery repeatedly flashed-up on to the back-scrim–and the front border for that matter!) Working in fascinating concert with these are Paul Black’s enigmatic Lighting Designs. As part of “How Could I Ever Know?” they even project sparks of light onto the performers, generating a vibrant one-of-a-kind ‘glistening’ effect. Moreover, the authentic Victorian/Edwardian Costume Designs by Alexandra Johnson truly capture the look and essence of these inimitable times at the height of England’s ‘Belle Epoch”. (Of course, regardless of the fashion, white is the color most favored throughout, as it is what the various ‘spirits’ are ‘shrouded’ in.) A special shout-out also goes to Julie Ferrin’s Sound Designs, which (in this case especially,) adds an otherworldly ‘echo’ to those verses sung by the ‘apparitions’, and which also integrates several equally ‘dissonant’ children’s voices intoning an elegiacal rendition of the old nursery rhyme, “Mistress Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?”
So ‘Come to this Garden–nestled in’ Cerritos CA.! (Even if you’ve seen the show done before, you’ve NEVER seen it like this—and 3-D Theatricals’ version is categorically THE version to see!) Having “Previewed” on Friday, May 3rd, “The Secret Garden” officially opened on Saturday, May 4th, 2019, where it’s slated to play through Sunday, May 19th , 2019 at “The Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts”, located at: 12700 Center Court Drive, in Cerritos. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM, with an additional Thursday evening performance on May 16th at 7:30 PM. Tickets may be obtained on-line by logging onto: www.Cerritoscenter.com OR www.3dtheatricals.org ; Or via phone by calling the Theater Box-Office at: (562) 916-8500, Tuesdays through Fridays between the hours of 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM; 12:00 – 4:00 PM on Saturdays. At the theatre, the Box-Office opens two hours prior to weekday and Saturday performances; one hour prior to Sunday performances. (Group and Student discounts are also available for this engagement.)
Production Stills By “Caught in the Moment Photography” (https:/www.caughtinthemoment.com/) Courtesy Of Jim Byk (www.thepressroomnyc.com ) and “3-D Theatricals”; Special Thanks To Jim Byk, Gigi Fusco-Meese, T.J. Dawson, Leslie Stevens, Allan Everman –And To The Cast And Crew Of “3-D Theatricals” 2019 Production Of “The Secret Garden” For Making This Story Possible.