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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


The Secret Garden and
Aliens in America

This week, two shows opened in Seattle which deal with the topic of family and the need to resolve our hang-ups with the concept of 'family,' if not with family members themselves, in order move on with our lives. These two shows are complete polar opposites: one a large musical adaptation of a turn-of-the-century children's book, the other a one-woman show from Los Angeles.

I firmly believe that the world is divided into two groups: those that identify with The Little Princess and her perpetually optimistic take on the world, and those that resonate more with Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden, and her growth from ultimate brat to well mannered girl. (Both stories, by the way, were written by Frances Hodgson Burnett around the turn of the century.). I firmly belong in the second camp, and would rather watch Mary Lennox's odyssey in any incarnation than be subjected to the saccharine Little Princess (my favorite take on The Little Princess story was, in fact, written by Edward Gorey, in which the cheerful moppet is sold into slavery, goes blind making artificial flowers, and is finally run over by her own father).

As you may have guessed, I am more in touch with my dark side, and The Secret Garden plays more to that end of the childhood spectrum. This is especially true of the 1991 Broadway musical version, which takes its cue from a line in the show in which Mary, after asking what happens to people when they die and if they all become ghosts, is told by her gloomy uncle "They're only a ghost if someone alive is still holding on to them." Marsha Norman, who won a Tony for her book and lyrics for the show, expanded upon this idea and peopled the world of The Secret Garden with the spirits of those who died, but are being held on this plane by those they left behind.

The spiritual aspect of the musical was expanded further in Fifth Avenue Theater's production of The Secret Garden, which was helmed by David Armstrong, director of the recent the Paper Mill version. The original Broadway production had a clear delineation between the spirit and the actual worlds - similar, in fact to Follies: the ghosts were basically memories and had no interaction with the real world. They served as a 'Greek chorus,' providing background information and commentary on the moods and actions as they unfolded. Only Lily, the spirit of Mary's aunt, who is also the wife of the 'gloomy hunchback,' Archibald, and mother of the crippled Colin, had minimal interaction with the real world. In this production, the role of the spirits in general, and Lily in particular, has been greatly expanded. They were given a more active role in their release, guiding Mary to Colin's room or through the maze of the garden. I found this highly effective, as it added to the drama, tension, and final peaceful resolution of the show as Mary, Archie and Colin stop living in the past, and discover that what they need in life is each other.

There also were some interesting textual and scenic changes. The original production had each act open with scenes that were highly symbolic, but equally confusing. The first act opened with a scarf dance that symbolized cholera being passed from individual to individual and their subsequent deaths. This production starts with the dinner party itself, with the guests dropping like flies and coming back as ghosts. The second act in the original opened with a fantasy birthday sequence, where Mary was surrounded by the family she never had but always dreamed of as she sang "I need a place where I can go ..." In this production, that idea is wisely scrapped, and instead Mary, who has just found the garden, sings "I have a place ..." which makes infinitely more sense.

The Seattle production was blessed by having the two actors for whom Secret Garden was conceived in the leading adult roles. Patti Cohenour, [please see Jonathan's interview with Patti] recently seen on Broadway in the Sound of Music and a Tony nominee for Drood, played Lily, a part she originated in the workshop of The Secret Garden. Instead of playing Lily on Broadway, she chose to continue playing Christine in Phantom of the Opera, where she was the first American to play the part. (The reason behind this will be explored shortly in an interview with Patti.) Hearing her perform Lily was breathtaking, as she has a warmth, both maternally and vocally, which was lacking in her replacement's portrayal. As mentioned, this production let Lily be more than a static image, and Patti perfectly captured the agony of a trapped soul who is forced to watch as her family is unable to move on and find life without her.

According to backstage sources, the part of Archibald Craven, Lily's physically and emotionally handicapped husband, was written with Mark Jacoby in mind. Since it was felt a name was needed in the original production, the role went to Mandy Patinkin. Mark, who has more than a passing vocal resemblance to Mandy, played the part less gloomily and intensely, and thus made the character more sympathetic and believable as a lost soul who is still alive, albeit largely living in the past. Mark and Patti's duet of "How Could I Ever Know" was musical theater at its finest, and showed us what was lost by these two not playing it on Broadway, and thus being recorded.

The two children in the show were extremely strong. Local actress Cara Rudd was wonderful in capturing the growth of Mary Lenox, being appropriately bratty, matter of fact, and tender as she blossoms under the garden's influence. Pierce Cravens, who played Chip in Beauty and the Beast and The Little Boy in Ragtime on Broadway was perfect as the 'crippled' Colin Craven. He was the first I have seen to find the emotional depths of the role, beyond simply playing him as a saintly brat.

The set by Michael Anania eschewed the Victorian postcard motif of the original, going more along the lines of the Haunted Mansion in Disney Land, with furniture and suits of armor being suspended in the air as if to symbolize a house with no grounding.

The Secret Garden seems to be a popular choice for the holiday slot in a theater's season. While it is based upon a children's book, it is not exactly that strong of a children's show, as the thematic darkness, obscure symbolism, and complex music make it hard for many kids to sit through. It's a wonderful show for children who have read the book, and have been exposed to theater previously, but it is confusing and squirm-inducing to children who have had no contact with either. It is, however, a must-see for any of us that have retained the sense of magic and wonder from childhood, or who can appreciate one of the most beautiful musicals of the 90s.

Across town, Seattle Repertory Theatre is host to Sandra Tsing Loh's one-woman show, Aliens in America which deals with her experiences growing up in Southern California with a Chinese father and German mother. The show is divided into three vignettes. The first, "My Father's Chinese Wives," deals with her father's search for a traditional Chinese wife at age 70. The second, "Ethiopian Vacation," describes a disastrous family vacation in Ethiopia, and the third, "Musk" is a memory of Sandra at 19, fresh from college and convinced that she's escaped the influence of the aliens that are her parents.

When done well, a one-person show is a thing of beauty. There is nothing like the energy, passion, and insights that can occur when they are performed by somebody at the top of their craft. Conversely, there is nothing more deadly than an evening of self-indulgence monologues. Thankfully, Sandra belongs squarely in the camp of the former. She is a dynamo of energy who just can not sit still, but bounds all over the stage, becoming in one instant her 70 year old "crazy Chinese father" (a euphemism, she explains, for cheap), then her Teutonic German mother, ("we are all foreigners in a foreign land, nicht war?") and her chronically angry sister.

Sandra's performance is part performance art, as she uses her body as an instrument to paint a biting, exaggerated, portrait of her characters, part stand-up comedy, and all dead-on observation. By being incredibly specific about her family and the traumas of being raised by people from two completely different worlds, she makes it apply to all of us, and makes us realize that we are all multi-racial, even if it's German/English or Northern/Southern Italian.

David Schweitzer's direction was lively and kept the evening focused and moving. Jason Adams' set design was brilliant, as it was composed of Chinese food take-out boxes built to resemble an American flag, with a revolving paper-walled pagoda serving as a variety of locales.

Sandra Tsing Loh can be heard on Public Radio with her monthly show "The Loh Down." She is a regular contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, and her books include Depth Takes a Holiday: Essays from Lesser Los Angeles, Aliens in America, and If You Lived Here, You'd be Home by Now. She performs her one-woman shows across the country, and I urge you to see her if she comes to your area.

The Secret Garden runs at the Fifth Avenue Theater through December 19th. For tickets, call Ticketmaster or stop by the box office.

Aliens in America runs at The Seattle Repertory Theatre through January 15th. For tickets, call the box office at (206) 443-2222. For more information visit their website at www.seattlerep.org.




- Jonathan Frank



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