Chicago Theatre Review
A Timeless Ghost Story Blooming With Love
The Secret Garden – Court Theatre
A classic of the musical theatre, like this, one that’s timeless. Not only did “The Secret Garden” prove to be a popular and critical success in its Broadway premier, playing over 700 performances back in 1991, but every touring, regional and amateur production of it is a guaranteed hit. This magical show, adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s classic, warms the heart of everyone who experiences it. It’s a Gothic ghost story, that absolutely blooms with love.
The musical tells the story of little Mary Lennox who has been raised in Colonial India at the turn of the century. The 10-year-old is the sole survivor of a cholera outbreak, during which she loses everyone: both her parents, Captain Albert Lennox and his wife Rose, Ayah, her Indian governess, and almost everyone she ever knew in India. British authorities send Mary to live with her only living relative, her morose Uncle Archibald Craven, in his eerie, isolated Yorkshire mansion. Both Mary and her uncle are haunted by ghosts. The spirits of Mary’s parents, her Ayah, as well as Archibald’s beloved wife Lily float through the dark rooms and long, empty corridors. Although Dr. Neville Craven, Archibald’s brother, and stern housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, become her adversaries, Mary finds friendship with the housemaid, Martha, her free-spirited brother Dickon and surly groundskeeper Ben. One night she discovers that she has a young cousin, Colin, who’s been confined to his bed with a mysterious illness and kept hidden in a secret room upstairs. Mary journeys from being a solitary, sullen and entitled youngster to becoming a life force, restoring love, hope and beauty to Colin, her uncle and her Aunt Lily’s secret garden.
This particular Garden’s secrets are many. Charles Newell’s production turns this traditionally visually lavish musical into a modest, intimate chamber production. He’s reduced his cast to 12, with most every actor doing double duty. Mr. Newell creates an ensemble from only the four ghosts, Mrs. Medlock, Martha, Ben and Dickon. His company seems to be almost in constant motion, roaming over and around the stage and up and down the aisles. Thanks to Katie Spelman’s inspired, organic choreography, much beauty is created. Doug Peck’s musical direction is, once again, brilliant. He subtly conducts his six-member orchestra from the sides of the playing area, featuring harpsichord, strings, percussion and Indian instruments. Flautist Suzanne Gillen, with her delicate, onstage portrayal of a robin adds much to the production. The labor of love by these talented artists is evident throughout.
John Culbert’s dark, gloomy setting, flanked by an enormous wall of frosted glass windows, is multi-purposed and forces the audience to use their imaginations for the various locales. Often somber, foggy and sparked by lightning and thunder, Marcus Doshi’s lighting design is best appreciated in the rebirth of the secret garden near the end of the show. The special effect which occurs simultaneously provides an additional unexpected delight. The talented Mara Blumenfeld creates a wardrobe of lovely Edwardian costumes that enhance the story, as well.
At the heart of this production is young Tori Whaples’ captivating portrayal of Mary Lennox (she shares this role at certain performances with Maya Hlava). Ms. Whaples absolutely owns the stage with her lovely singing voice and spot-on British accent (thanks to Dialect coach Eva Breneman). The look in this little girl’s eyes tells us everything about her loneliness and desperation for affection. The beautiful, celestial voice of Jennie Sophia, who brings Lily’s ghost to life for this production, is the real key to unlocking this secret garden. The grace and exquisite manner with which she inhabits this piece is unforgettable, and Ms. Sophia’s rendition of “Come to My Garden” will haunt audiences long after the curtain falls.
Rob Lindley solidly creates the haunted soul of Archibald Craven, a man who’s been living in the past so long he seems doomed never to escape. His solo (“Where in the World”) and his duets with Ms. Sophia (the breathtaking “How Could I Ever Know”), and particularly his duet with the excellent Jeff Parker, as Neville Craven, the stirring “Lily’s Eyes,” are additional highlights of this beautiful score by Lucy Simon, lyrics by Marsha Norman. Elizabeth Ledo is a pixie-like, charming Martha. She adds a bit of warmth and humor to the play with her “If I Had a Fine White Horse,” while her anthem of pluck and determination, “Hold On,” is the only advice Mary Lennox needs. James Earl Jones II makes a peevish, vinegary Groundskeeper, Ben; the wonderful Marya Grandy is perfection as no-nonsense housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock; Aubrey McGrath makes a fine Dickon, especially in his songs “Wick” and “Winter’s on the Wing;” and Trent Noor does a nice job as Colin. Special mention must be made of the excellent, hard-working trio of ghosts: Alka Nayyar as Mary’s graceful Ayah, the lovely Allison Sill as Rose, Mary’s spoiled mother and, as Captain Lennox, Kevin Webb, whose incomparable voice makes him deserving of a starring role in the near future.
This production by the Court Theatre is a timeless tale about the power of love. Simon and Norman have taken a few liberties with the original novel, but their story, with its haunting musical score, still tells about a little girl who survives unimaginable odds to not only help those around her, and still become “The Girl I Mean to Be.” Mary Lennox and her family and friends will certainly haunt the hearts and souls of all who visit this intimate Secret Garden.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 21-June 21 by the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 773-753-4472 or by going to www.CourtTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.