Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

The Secret Garden
A Bloomin' Miracle
The 5th Avenue Theatre

Review by David Edward Hughes

Also see David's reviews of A Proper Place and Murder for Two


Bea Corley and Charlie Franklin
Photo by Tracy Martin
In the 1990-1991 Broadway musical theatre season, only six new musicals opened, and many Broadway houses sat empty. Four of the six were nominated in the annual Tony Awards Best Musical category: Miss Saigon, a musical by the Les Misérables team that was already a smash in the West End; The Will Rogers Follies, a Tommy Tune helmed spectacle and the last hurrah of the golden age Broadway team of songwriter/librettists Betty Comden & Adolph Green; Once on This Island, an original fairytale-like Caribbean set musical that announced the composer/lyricist team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty as voices of a new Broadway era; and The Secret Garden, by another Broadway team debut, composer Lucy Simon and playwright/lyricist Marsha Norman, based on a classic piece of children's literature.

The Secret Garden seemed a lock on a Broadway younger audience crowd, with 11-year-old Daisy Eagan as Mary Lennox carrying home a Featured Actress Tony in an auspicious Broadway debut, the youngest female actor to receive that nod. All four shows split up the Tony nominations in their categories, and apart from the big blockbuster built-in smash (and endlessly running) hit Miss Saigon, the other three ran successfully for anywhere from one-two years, with successful tours, regional theatre lives, and appeal for a variety of audiences.

The Secret Garden is following in the footsteps of past competitor Miss Saigon in returning to Broadway, with this fresh and vibrantly joyous new production co-produced by DC's Shakespeare Theatre Company where it ran to acclaim this past holiday season. Canny director/choreographer David Armstrong cast a still youthful Daisy Eagan in the pivotal supporting role of Mary's chambermaid/confidante Martha, and Ms. Eagan is charmingly perky and heartwarming in the role. But every aspect of this slightly pruned, more concise and fleet-footed production is, coming up roses. Oh, yes, as a big fan of the original, I briefly mourned the removal of two sweet act two songs (one which has been replaced by a wisp of a song called "Man in the Moon," a fairly agreeable change), but Armstrong's clear-headed direction and tweaks and movement of some scenes and songs not only work, but should satisfy most who had any reservations.

First, a summary for those not in the know about the tale, based on Frances Hodgson Burnette's early 20th century novel: Young Mary Lennox, living with her British officer father Albert and somewhat high-strung mother Rose, loses them and everyone she has held dear to cholera, and is shipped back to a foreboding-looking English mansion on the moors to live with her hunchbacked and remote Uncle Archibald Craven, still mourning the loss of his beloved wife Lily, whose ghostly presence is for him everywhere on the great estate. The bewildered, contrary Mary has been accompanied by her own ghostly ensemble including her parents and Indian servant/caretakers. Household staff members (chambermaid Martha, Martha's blithe nature boy brother Dickon, and gardener Ben) befriend Mary and start to open up her heart again. During a stormy night, Mary finds that the source of a nightly sobbing she hears is actually her frail and apparently sickly cousin Colin, whose mother, Mary's Aunt Lily, died giving birth to the boy. Mary and her friends, though faced with gloom-ridden threats from Archibald's jealous younger brother Neville, work and include Colin in the rebirth of Lily's long-locked secret garden, whose renewal may change everything, and set the lingering ghostly presences to rest.

The original book and several film versions put more emphasis on the children, where Norman's Tony Awarded Best Book of a Musical brings the adults to a more equal footing. Armstrong's cast, several new for the Seattle run, are strong actor-singers all, and move with all the grace asked of Armstrong's lithe choreography and musical staging. Tam Mutu (Archibald) and Josh Young (Neville) give finely tuned portrayals as the rivalrous, emotionally scarred brothers, and their near act one closing soaring duet "Lily's Eyes" is emotional as hell, beautifully sung, and never too pushed.

Bea Corley is rather an astonishing child actress whose Mary doesn't rush out of her wrecked psyche cell too easily, managing to earn a great deal of honest laughs when Mary acts out her saucy side. Corley is also impressive on "The Girl I Mean to Be" and in all her many musical moments. Daisy Eagan's biggest strength, which may come in part from her being the original Mary, is the twinkle in her eye and laugh in her smile as Martha sees much of herself in the young Mary, and her key numbers, the wry "Brand New Coat" and especially the show's possibly best solo "Hold On," are vividly performed. Still growing in the role perhaps, Eagan may well earn her second featured actress Tony by the time such awards are nominated for next season.

Guthrie Greenwood Bettinger (the opening night Colin, who alternates with Coleman Hunter in the role) is someone I can see going a long way in musical theatre, if his well-etched performance, limpid voice, and natural charm in this professional debut is any indication. Charlie Franklin does an outstanding, crowd-pleasing job as Dickon. Audience energy really soared to another level reacting to his amazing "Winter's on the Wing," and in the engaging "Wick" with Miss Corley. As the fondly recalled spirit of Lily, Lizzie Klemperer makes her duet with a lovely effortless soprano with young Master Bettinger on "Come to My Garden," a caress born of maternal love. The heart-tugging "How Could I Ever Know?" with Mutu's Archibald says all we need to know about why he has been lost without her love.

Seán G. Griffin is a natural fit for the role of the crusty, warm-hearted gardener Ben, Marianne Owen doesn't overdo housekeeper Mrs. Medlock's starchy strictness, and Mary Jo Dugaw deliciously insinuates as Mary's proposed school administrator Mrs. Winthrop, a cross the Atlantic cousin of Kansas' Almira Gulch as she and Corley's Mary face off. Many stellar Seattle talents are employed in the company's richly voiced ensemble, and proud we are of them.

You could get away with a no-frills, tuxedo and evening-gowned minimalist concert of this show. But nothing to get away is planted here, what with the consummate level of scenic designer Anna Louizos' stairway-laden house and garden mazes (with runways out beyond where the orchestra pit usually is), lighting designer Mike Baldassari's expert mix of light and all important shadows, and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward's expertly etched sumptuous ballgowns, starchy servant uniforms, quaint children's apparel, and jaunty garden-folk garb. Christopher Jahnke's new orchestrations are not wildly different from the fine William David Brohn originals, but do bring out some lighter, rather less bombastic interpretations of the mellifluous Simon melodies.

People will pay twice or more than what you will here to see this winner on Broadway, so don't wait, gather ye rosebuds, and head to the 5th online, by phone, or in person, cause time's a wasting!

The Secret Garden, a co-production with Shakespeare Theatre Company, runs through May 6, 2017, at The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue, Seattle. For tickets and information, call 206-625-1900 or visit www.5thavenue.org.


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