I’ve probably read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden to my daughter Cassidy more than any other book; in fact, it’s one of our favorites to act out with dolls, puppets and even Legos. So, I was thrilled to be taking her to NextStop’s production of the beloved musical—the first time either of us has seen it performed live. I’m happy to say, neither of us left disappointed.
With a book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, the 1991 Broadway musical follows the tragic story of Mary Lennox, a “forgotten” little girl who is sent to live with her embittered, reclusive uncle in a vast Yorkshire estate after a cholera outbreak in her home country of India leaves her an orphan.
Neglected by her uncle, the child slowly begins to discover the home’s ghosts, which will help unravel the mysteries of her family’s painful past and in turn, lead her on a mission to fix an equally neglected garden.
Isabella Brody was pitch-perfect in bringing Mary to life. The young actress conveyed an array of emotion from sorrow to anger to hope. A scene in which she asks her uncle for “a little bit of Earth” so she can plant seeds to start her own garden will melt your heart, while a torrid tantrum at her Uncle proves she has the chops to stand (or in this case, lay on the floor in a fit!) with actors of any age. Brody’s accent was spot-on and her singing —especially in “The Girl I Mean to Be,”—a delight.
My daughter especially enjoyed “Round-Shouldered Man,” a duet sung by Brody and Eli Schulman, a young actor playing Mary’s invalid cousin Colin, a boy who appears to be kept in bed more through the power of self-fulfilling prophecy than any real medical necessity. The chemistry between the two is sweet and it’s their bond that drives the second act.
Katie Keyser handles the high soprano necessary for Lily with great aplomb, and is chilling when leading the ghosts in “Storm” and songs such as “How Could I Ever Know.”
The supporting performances are strong, as well. Caitlin Shea gets plenty of laughs as the caring maid who has the heaviest Yorkshire accent this side of Downton. Her solo “Hold On” brings some fun to a book that sometimes hovers on becoming too dreary. Sean McComas is a hoot as Dickon, the Moor boy who helps Mary rise above the gloom.
As the devious Dr. Neville Craven, Bobby Libby is in fine villainous form, and contrasts nicely with John Loughney’s portrayal of the somewhat meek and depressed Uncle Archibald. The two share a poignant duet on “Lily’s Eyes,” and you almost wish there was more stage time for the two together.
THE SECRET GARDEN
March 26 – April 19
NextStop Theatre Company at
Industrial Strength Theatre
269 Sunset Business Park
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Director Evan Hoffman delivers a rather haunting feel for the production, but never lets it get so dreary that it loses the luster and joy that fans of the original novel associate with. Meanwhile, scenic designer Andrew Cohen’s set, while minimal at first glance, made great use of the NextStop stage, bringing in appropriate pieces for scenes without distracting from plot. A series of paintings hanging across the set were really projection screens and represented everything from the ghosts to a journey from India to England, to the titular garden itself.
And speaking of the garden, Hoffman utilizes imagery that represents renewed life throughout the play as we follow along with Mary and her journey to no longer being the forgotten child. The Secret Garden symbolizes hope and love, and will leave every audience member with the desire for “a little Earth” of their own.
Note: Although a beloved children’s book, The Secret Garden may be a little too intense for those under 9, with some heavy plot points and circumstances the little ones probably won’t understand.
The Secret Garden . Book and Lyrics by Marsha Norman . Music by Lucy Simon . Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett . Directed by Evan Hoffmann . Featuring Jamie Boyle, Isabella Brody, Mikey Catarelli, John Dellaporta, Nadia Duncan, Anna Jackson, Rick Kenney, Katie Keyser, Shaina Virginia Kuhn, Bobby Libby, John Laughney, Sean McComas, Lynn Audrey Neal, Meredith Richard, Eli Schulman, Caitlin Shea, Maggie Slivka and Ethan Van Slyke . Music Director: Steve Przybylski . Scenic Designer: Andrew Cohen . Technical Director: Jon Harvey . Master Electrician: Brian Stefanial . Sound Designer: Stan Harris . Projection/Lighting Designer: Sarah Tundermann, Costume Designer: Kristina Martin . Stage Manager: Keta Newborn, assisted by Laura Moody . Produced by NextStop Theatre . Reviewed by Keith Loria.