Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

The Secret Garden
University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music
Review by Scott Cain | Season Schedule

The Cast
Photo by Mark Lyons
It's unclear if the lower-than-normal attendance at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) production of The Secret Garden, at least at the performance I attended, is due to the inclement weather, the fact that Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park mounted a fine production just a few years ago, or fear over the coronavirus, but those absent audience members are missing a praiseworthy presentation of this musical.

The Secret Garden is based on the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The show opened on Broadway in 1991, after premiering in Virginia in 1989, and won several Tony Awards. The story follows a young English girl, Mary, who is orphaned when her parents die of cholera while in India in the early 1900s. Mary is sent to live with her British Uncle Archibald, whom she doesn't know. Though neglected at first, Mary 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 book by Marsha Norman garnered a Tony, and it weaves elements of fantasy (the ghosts/memories of the dead who interact and comment on the action frequently), high emotions, historical perspective, and complicated interrelationships 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. The beginnings of both acts are fantasy moments, without any prior context, so they may be somewhat confusing until later on in the show.

Norman also supplies the lyrics for the score, which are accessible, apt in tone and setting, and insightful. Coupled with music by Lucy Simon, the songs feature earthy folksy tunes, operatic arias, gentle lullabies, ardent ballads, and vibrant anthems, all befitting the time period and characters, and they are 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."

CCM's production is directed and choreographed by 2006 CCM grad Connor Gallagher, who is represented on Broadway currently as the choreographer for Beetlejuice. Mr. Gallagher provides active blocking, and he has staged the show so that several of the more poignant moments are especially impactful. The decisions on how to use the actors portraying the ghosts are always difficult ones for this show, and he is mostly successful in meeting this challenge (though some of the early movement is a bit too over-stylized). Jeremy Robin Lyons leads a lush-sounding 17-piece orchestra that features some beautiful harp moments.

The cast is up to the consistent high level for which CCM is known. Zoe Mezoff convincingly portrays the young child Mary Lennox, and she demonstrates a strong character arc, moving from a spoiled and broken soul to that of a blossoming and supportive optimist. As Archibald, Madison Hagler provides expressive vocals and poignantly embodies the tortured yet tender soul of a grieving widower and overwhelmed father. Delaney Guyer shows off a lovely, classical soprano voice as Lily, and moves with grace.

Sam Pickart conveys the antagonistic Dr. Craven with simmering, restrained anger. Anna Chase Lanier is a spunky and spirited Martha, and showcases great comedic skills and a lovely singing voice. Kurtis Bradley Brown brings a likeable eagerness to his role as the free-spirit Dickon who helps Mary find the garden. As Colin, Jenna Bienvenue is a strong singer and captures both the initial spoiled irritation and then burgeoning hope 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.

The physical design of the production is impressive in both its scale and attractiveness. The scenic design by Joshua E. Gallagher focuses on the mansion and features multiple levels, doors, staircases, landings, exits and entrances. When inside the mansion, a backdrop decorated with numerous large paintings appears. When outside, we see the dreary sky of the English moors. The mansion and surrounding proscenium are speckled with vines to also represent the gardens, which are not otherwise shown literally. The lighting by Evan Carlson includes variety and subtlety, and the costumes by Dean Mogle are handsome and period appropriate.

Any production of The Secret Garden is going to be a challenge for both those on stage and for audiences, but CCM's production is also very rewarding, thanks to apt direction, breathtaking design, and worthwhile performances. With a major plot point about the large-scale outbreak of a disease and the theme of healing, this may be an unintentionally timely musical given what is happening in the world right now. The characters ultimately decide to live their lives rather than hide in fear and brokenness, and that may be good advice to consider in the real world as well.

The Secret Garden runs through March 8, 2020, at University of Cincinnati, Corbett Auditorium, Cincinnati OH. For more information, visit