The Secret Garden is based on the 1911 novel of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The show premiered on Broadway in 1991 and won several Tony Awards. The story follows Mary, a young English girl who is orphaned when her parents die of cholera while in India in the early 1900s. Mary is sent to live with her English Uncle Archibald, whom she doesn't know. Though neglected at first, she finds meaning in trying to bring a discarded garden back to life, and ends up sparking hope and renewal in the lives of several broken people as well.
The musical's book by Marsha Norman garnered a Tony, and weaves elements of fantasy (the ghosts/memories of the dead who interact and comment on the action frequently), high emotions, historical perspective, and complicated interrelationship into a complex tapestry which requires attention and thoughtful consideration as well as emotional investment from the audience. While the story initially comes across as somewhat sorrowful, the end result is one of hope, healing, and restoration.
Norman also wrote the lyrics for the show, which are accessible, apt in tone and setting, and insightful. These are coupled with music by Lucy Simon which includes earthy folksy tunes, operatic arias, gentle lullabies, ardent ballads, and vibrant anthems, all befitting the time period and characters and wonderfully tuneful. Song highlights include the lilting "A Bit of Earth," "Lily's Eyes" (a fervent duet for Archibald Craven and his brother as they remember the woman that they both loved), "Hold On," the soaring operatic "Come To My Garden," and two energetic numbers for the younger characters: "Wick" and "Come Spirit, Come Charm."
Cincinnati Playhouse's production is significant for its sure-handed and strong directorial vision from Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Working with the smaller thrust stage of the Marx Theatre, she employs various theatrical devices effectively to overcome the lack of literal set pieces. Milgrom Dodge is able to present much of the material in a more artistic, slightly abstract manner while still clearly conveying the story and characters with layers of depth and meaning. Though the opening five minute section comes across initially as odd performance art, its meaning is reconciled later on and sets the tone for the unique show that is to come. The distinction of which scenes are fantasy/imaginations of the characters as opposed to reality is clearly conveyed (which is no simple task), and puppets, shadows, and other stagecraft are used effectively. The humor of the piece, which is subtle, also comes across well in this production. True care and skill is taken in the direction and choreography (also by Milgrom Dodge) which is evident at all times.
The cast, which includes a number of Broadway veterans, is also first rate. It's hard to believe that Caitlin Cohn is a college student, as she so convincingly portrays the young child Mary Lennox. However, that experience and age does help to explain the talent and high level of her performance. Ms. Cohn throws herself fully into the role, and moves the character from being a sullen, spoiled, and broken soul to that of a blossoming, supportive giver of hope to with great skill. She provides many layers to the character, and sings wonderfully throughout. As Archibald, Kevin Earley sings like an angel and poignantly embodies the tortured yet tender soul of a grieving widower and overwhelmed father. Brandi Burkhardt shows off a beautiful classical soprano voice as Lily, and moves with grace.
CCM grad Adam Monley, on leave from the Broadway production of Les Misérables, portrays the antagonistic Dr. Craven as highly conflicted and self-serving. Mr. Monley sings superbly and is able to impressively communicate acting-wise while singing. Charlotte Maltby is a spunky and spirited Martha, and showcases great comedic skills and a lovely singing voice. Cameron Bartell seemed a bit unsteady vocally in his first song at the performance I attended, but is a great fit as the eccentric, nature-loving, free-spirit Dickon. As Colin, Anthony Frederickson is a strong singer and captures both the initial anger and then burgeoning hopefulness of a boy learning he can expect much more out of life. The entire cast does an admirable job in all respects, and is especially praiseworthy performing the beautiful chorale numbers.
It isn't really feasible to attempt to provide literal representations of the various locales of the show on this smaller thrust stage, so designer Narelle Sissons instead provides an attractive book themed set featuring gigantic pages from the novel of "The Secret Garden" which form the floor and the backdrop for the action. Smaller set pieces are raised from the floor, lowered from the ceiling, or otherwise brought in to provide clues (also almost always mentioned in the lyrics or dialogue as well) as to the setting of each scene. Keeping with the book motif, the flowers of the garden unexpectedly appear via pop-up book style tabs. The costumes by Leon Wiebers are handsome and apt, with those British who died in India having the blue/green hues hinting at the cholera which spelled their doom. The lighting by Matthew Richards makes great use of shadows and is professionally rendered. Kudos to David Bullard for a very clear sound design. Conductor Michael Sebastian leads an exquisite sounding seven-piece band playing musical director Sariva Goetz's unique and well-suited arrangements.
The Secret Garden is a challenging piece to stage. Under Marcia Milgrom Dodge's insightful direction, the theme of neglected and broken people being brought back to life just as the forgotten garden is likewise revived comes through clearly. Along with an extremely talented cast and solid support from the other creative team members, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park production gives new life to this haunting and emotional musical.
The Secret Garden continues at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park through October 3, 2015, before moving on to a run at Baltimore's Center Stage later this fall. For tickets and more information in Cincinnati, call (513) 421-3888 or visit www.cincyplay.com.