Monday, December 5, 2011

"A Secret Garden" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

"A Secret Garden" was first published in 1911 by Francis Hodgson Burnett and set in Yorkshire around 1906. In Robert Kelley's TheatreWorks production we get all the trappings of a 'holiday show' -- wealthy Englishmen, innocent children, good people who are good and bad people who are bad. Dear Mom has died and Sad Dad is trying to cope. But don't let that deter you for there is a great deal more to this production.

The welcome difference here is that the music, especially in Act One, is interesting and involving (it doesn't hurt that we get to hear it played live by an excellent orchestra). Every member of the cast can really sing. Little Mary (played by sixth-grader Angelina Wahler) has a voice that matches her grown-up stage presence, while Joe Cassidy as good Uncle Archie, Noel Anthony as conniving Uncle Neville, and Courtney Stokes as Martha the chambermaid all perform stereotypical parts with a great deal of heart, not to mention enormous voice boxes.

The show stealer, however, is the side character Dickon, played by Alex Brightman, who seems to be channeling Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. We wish he were on stage more.

The show has pedigree. Burnett's original children's story was a tremendous hit in England and America when it first appeared. She was already renowned for her extremely successful "Little Lord Fauntleroy" (1886) and "The Little Princess" (1905). "A Secret Garden" became a Broadway musical in 1991, adapted for the stage with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Luci Simon (Carly's older sister).

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Secret Garden" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. It is certainly not overstuffed holiday turkey, you get excellent trimmings besides. If there is one problem it is that the vaguely Irish-Scottish sameness of Luci Simon's music tends to wear thin halfway through Act Two. Still, the marvelous "In Lily's Eyes," sung in duet by Anthony and Cassidy, is a magnificent song and deserving of the BANGLE all by itself.

"A Secret Garden"
The Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlewood Road, Palo Alto
Through Dec 31
$19 (student) - $71

Photos by M. Kitaoka and T. Martin

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