Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved Victorian classic, The Secret Garden, has been transformed into a beautiful and brooding musical by Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon. The story revolves around young Mary Lennox (Giovanna A. Layne), who loses her parents to a cholera outbreak in India, which is represented through a nicely staged, creative movement by choreographer Gregory Daniels. She is sent to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven (Steven Mitchell Brown), who lives in the imposing, secluded Misselthwaite Manor. Inside the haunted house, Mary finds a reclusive, long-suffering collection of souls, and Dr. Neville Craven (Tom Ford), Archibald’s younger brother, who is not the kindest at his best. Since her aunt Lily’s (Jillian Kates) death, Mary’s uncle has pushed away his surviving loved ones, leaving his bedridden son, Colin (Warren Bodily), alone. Sickly Colin, hidden away in the depths of the manner, bears the guilt of his mother’s death, which occurred during childbirth. When Mary discovers her Aunt Lily’s hidden garden, looking lifeless, Mary is determined to revive the beauty that once was. She receives much-needed support in her plan by encountering Housekeeper Martha (Sara Masterson), and her younger brother Dickon (Colton Ryan), who helps tend to the grounds. Surrounded by spirits from the past, determined Mary begins to peel away the layers of sadness that cover the house and the garden, and as a result, create a new life in the garden, and in the hearts of her loved ones.
Director Victoria Bussert offers us a well paced, star-studded affair in this production. Bussert never lets the story flounder for a moment, and makes expeditious use of the minimal Scenic Design by Jeff Herrman. Not distracted from overdone set pieces, this piece provides characterizations to be at the heart of the story. Daniels compliments Bussert’s vision with interesting choices for movement, that entertain and enhance the story. Musical Director Joel Mercier provides stunning orchestration to match the powerful and impressive voices that inhabit the stage. The costumes are gorgeous, and no wonder, with Costume Designer Charlotte M. Yetman infused in every stitch. Lighting Designer Paul Miller provides emotional lighting that captivates each mood, while Sound Designer David Gotwald sets excellent balance and provides a coming storm bang that will ensure you are paying attention.
At the center of the story is Layne, who portrays Mary with guts, determination and creates honesty moments throughout. She is a fearless actress who traverses this material like a pro, while she stands toe to toe with the professionals around her. Layne is able to remain strong and centered throughout the show, providing insight into her characters journey. Layne also adds strong vocals to her talents as well.
From the moment Kates appears as Lily, we are transformed to behold THAT voice and presence. Her vocals could calm global warming. She gives Lily a soul that we can connect with, and passion that we can feel as she connects with the lives she did not want to leave. A glorious performance. It was the first time I have heard this artist sing, and it has become one of the best moments of the year.
Stephen Mitchell Brown was spectacular as Archibald Craven. His voice is rich, deep and soulful while also being able to float up to heaven. He has a commanding, yet, very likable presence. He provided us an emotional road map to finding the arc of Archie through dynamic acting choices. Brown sets hearts on fire with his pining song “Where in the World”, and then combines with Kates to emotionally blow the roof off the theatre with the duet “How Will I Ever Know”. If you don’t believe in love after that song, then congratulations, you are a zombie.
Ford is on point portraying the unpopular and selfish Dr. Neville Craven, who torments Mary most of the play. Ford does great justice to creating a villain that we get to root against. He serves up some calculating realness, and clearly defines this character’s flaws to the delight of wanting him to fail and find his comeuppance. Ford and Brown also combine their vocal talents to make an event out of the “Lily’s Eyes”, which is one of the grand moments of the show.
Enter Mary’s fierce accomplices, the radiant and fiery Masterson and the matinee idol Ryan, as Martha and Dickon. Both harnessing a deft Yorkshire accent, these two actors excel. Masterson has incredible presence, and a fabulous voice which can captivate while telling a story in “A Fine White Horse”, or provide strength and encouragement during “Hold On” that would motivate Anthony Robbins. Ryan has charm and likability for days. He also owns a beautiful voice which captivates the audience with a playful “Winter’s on the Wing”, and fuels “Wick” with boundless energy and entertainment. Bodily is wonderful as Colin. He provides an innocence and purity that immediately establishes a connection with the audience. He does a great job at showing the emotional and physical growth of his character. And to no surprise, handles the vocals with ease and would most certainly be the MVP of the Vienna Boys Choir.
Some fine featured moments come from Laura Perrotta as Mrs. Medlock, Dougfred Miller as Ben Weatherstaff, Cassandra Bissell as Mrs. Winthrop, and I do believe that the voice of Leah Jennings, portraying Rose Lennox, could melt the ice caps with her breathtaking clear vocals. I just realized I am all about the weather, but I think it is because that first storm thunder knocked my patella into my stomach.
For my enjoyment, the only moment that was subdued due to the fantastic pace, was the pay off when Archie sends Neville away. I wanted that to resonate more, so we could give Neville exit applause for his “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out!” moment.
I love The Secret Garden. This production came through with flying colors. Bravo Victoria Bussert, for bringing this garden to life.
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$13-$70 Reserved Seating
1501 Euclid Avenue, Suite 300
Cleveland, Ohio 44115