The Secret Garden at the Shakespeare Theatre

Photo by Courtesy The Shakespeare Theatre
 Josh Young and Michael Xavier
Josh Young and Michael Xavier

The Secret Garden was written in 1910 by Frances Hodgson Burnett and was first titled ‘Mistress Mary’ in the form of 27 individual chapters in the American Magazine. It was published as a children’s story one year later and quickly appealed to both children and adults.

 Charlie Franklin and Anya Rothman (Photo by: Courtesy The Shakespeare Theatre) Charlie Franklin and Anya Rothman

The story revolves around 10-year-old Mary Lennox who loses her parents to a cholera epidemic in the British Raj of India. She then travels to England and becomes the ward of her uncle Archibald Craven who is still grieving the death of his wife ten years earlier. Terrified of every nook and cranny of the haunted Craven Manor on the Yorkshire Moors, Mary seeks refuge in her late aunt’s mysterious walled garden, which she discovers holds some amazing secrets.

This musical version based on the children’s book A Secret Garden, was written by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon and won a Drama Desk and Tony Award when it was first presented on Broadway. It has been described as the story of hardship turned into hope, of beauty discovered in unlikely places, the power of the child’s imagination and the wisdom that accompanies growing up.

This production, superbly directed by David Armstrong, finds its way into your heart and one of the main reasons is its young star Anya Rothman who plays Mary Lennox. She is simply brilliant. A multi-talented young actress acting, singing and dancing. We are taken on Mary’s voyage through her young life where she shares her inner strength and belief things can be better.

The rest of the cast, and it is a cast of twenty-one, are wonderful with standouts including Charlie Franklin as Dickon whose beautiful voice and scenes with Mary bring hope to her life and warmth to the audience. Michael Xavier as Archibald Craven, Mary’s uncle, Josh Young as Dr. Neville Craven, and the grown-up Daisy Eagan as Martha, who won a Tony award when she played Mary Lennox on Broadway, are all wonderful. Lizzie Klemperer who plays the ghost of Lily Craven captures your imagination every time she sings.  

But then this production is more than the story or the cast. Their work is complemented with the incredible sets designed by Anna Louizos. While it took me part of the first act to get used to the constant movement of the set, there are five levels of movement, by the middle of the act I fully appreciated its brilliance and how it was used.  In the final scene of the show which takes place in the revived secret garden you could hear the gasp of the audience as the garden in all its revived glory was unveiled. 

Lizzie Klemperer (Photo by: Courtesy The Shakespeare Theatre) Lizzie Klemperer

The first act while strong moves a little slower than the second. The story unfolds slowly as Mary moves to Craven Manor and then discovers her young cousin, played by Henry Baratz, who is kept in his room being told and believing he is dying. Mary convinces him he isn’t and changes his life and that of her uncle leading to the happy ending by the end of the second act.

The costumes were wonderful designed by Ann Hould-Ward who also designed costumes for other Shakespeare productions including Man of La Mancha. These were not easy as most of the cast, after the first scene when they die of cholera, are ghosts dancing and singing around Mary and the Craven household.  They are all dressed in white yet Hould-Ward makes them memorable none-the-less. The lighting by Mike Baldassari enhances the set. There is an orchestra and one of the things occasionally distracting is the box at the front of the stage where the conductor’s hands pop up occasionally. But Rick Fox’s musical direction and arrangements and the beautiful voices of the cast make it a very minor distraction. 

The Secret Garden is at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Harman Hall until December 31st. It is a wonderful holiday treat which you can and should take your children to see knowing you will enjoy it as much as they will.