AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music by Lucy Simon
Book and lyrics by Marsha Norman
Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Directed by Robert Kelley
Presented by TheatreWorks
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA / (650) 463-1960

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel "The Secret Garden" has been a favorite for generations of readers, especially younger ones. Now it has become a musical that has been an audience favorite since its Broadway debut in 1991. TheatreWorks first produced it in 1995 and now has brought it back as a nicely wrapped holiday gift.

When one listens to the recording, Lucy Simon's music seems almost operatic with numerous ensembles in which individual lyrics are often hard to distinguish. This is not the case in the TheatreWorks production. Thanks to musical director William Liberatore (who also conducts from the keyboard) and the blend by an excellent cast of singers, each character's thoughts are easy to follow.

Likewise, Robert Kelley's staging, aided by a first-rate design team, keeps things clear as live characters and ghosts often occupy the stage simultaneously. Marsha Norman's book (she also wrote the lyrics) starts the action in Colonial India in 1906 as a cholera epidemic kills thousands of people. The victims include the servants and parents of young Mary Lennox (Angelina Wahler, alternating with Rachel Sue), who is bundled off to the gloomy home of her uncle in northern Yorkshire, England.

It's a house of secrets and sadness as her uncle, Archibald Craven (Joe Cassidy), is still mourning the death of his wife, Lily (Patricia Noonan), some 10 years ago. Still, Mary finds companionship with three servants: chambermaid Martha (Courtney Stokes), Martha's brother, Dickon (Alex Brightman), and gardener Ben Weatherstaff (Daniel Olson).

Eventually Mary discovers her bedridden cousin Colin (Charlie Ibsen, alternating with Andrew Apy), Archibald and Lily's son. He's kept hidden away, it seems, at the bidding of Archibald's younger brother, Dr. Neville Craven (Noel Anthony), who not only secretly loved Lily but also covets the estate. Mary also discovers Lily's garden, which has been locked behind a tall wall ever since her death. Thanks to her efforts, along with help from the three servants, she revives the garden, helps restore Colin to health and finally rouses Archibald from his depression.

Costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt help to distinguish the ghosts from the live people. Besides Noonan as Lily, the ghosts are played by Sharon Rietkerk as Rose Lennox, her sister and Mary's mother; Robert Brewer as Capt. Albert Lennox, Mary's father; Mrigendra Steiner as Ayah, Mary's nanny; and Adam Theodore Barry as Fakir, a mystic. Other live characters are portrayed by Leanne Borghesi as Mrs. Medlock, the dour housekeeper; and Steiner as a headmistress.

Joe Ragey's fluid scenic design, complemented by Pamila Z. Gray's lighting and Jeff Mockus's sound, helps the action move smoothly. The minimal choreography is nicely done by Molly Bell. All of the performers are excellent singers and actors, but Wahler deserves extra kudos as Mary.This poised sixth-grader, who already has impressive credits, is totally believable in the role, a real pro. Except for Brightman, who needs to bring his Dickon portrayal down a notch or two, all of the performers excel in solos. They also blend well. This is especially true of Cassidy and Anthony in "Lily's Eyes."

This return of "The Secret Garden" is most welcome, a fine way to celebrate a festive season.

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