Director Charles Newell delivers a riveting, haunting, stunningly emotional rendition of Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon‘s (music) The Secret Garden that simply should not be missed.
Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett and set in the early 1900s, the story revolves around an 11-year-old English orphan, Mary Lennox, who is sent from her home in India when cholera takes the lives of her parents and Ayah (nanny). She arrives at her uncle’s Yorkshire, England estate, forced to live with relatives whom she has never met and are dealing with grief of their own. As Mary’s personality blossoms, she and Dickon, a young gardener, take risks to bring new life to her dead aunt’s secret and neglected garden and to Mary’s ill cousin and uncle.
The 2001 Broadway production was generally well received, garnering numerous award nominations and several statues, including Tonys for Best Book of a Musical (Norman) and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Daisy Eagan). A full plot synopsis and production history may be read here.
Broadway’s rendition couldn’t have had much on the current local staging.
Nestled in Court’s wonderful theatrical space on the University of Chicago’s campus, Newell’s presentation features a cavalcade of Chicagoland stage luminaries and stars in the making. They are buoyed by the musical genius of Doug Peck and his tight 5-person orchestra as well as a brilliantly simple, stark John Culbert-designed set that (with steps) offers 11 levels of vertical performance space—a wonderful luxury for the director.
The on-stage talent parade begins with Tori Whaples as Mary, who plays forlorn just perfectly, thank you. Her voice is terrific and characterization, spot-on. (Maya Hlava performs the role in some performances.) Whaples is well supported by her adult cast mates.
The gorgeous Jennie Sophia could easily step into any female lead role in American musical theatre and make it appear effortless. Her portrayal of omniscient Lily, Mary’s aunt, shows her as the caretaking matriarch, even in death, continuing to watch over her son Colin (well played by Trent Noor) and her niece, until Lily fully knows she’s no longer needed. There’s a strong desire, just after taking in this wonderful work, to return and stay riveted on Sophia so as not to miss a single one of her reactions. And then there’s her gorgeous soprano and the hauntingly beautiful solo, “Come to My Garden” which is, in and of itself, worth the price of admission.
Rob Lindley as the neglectful uncle, Archibald Craven, is perfectly cast. He evokes just the right balance of irritation and sympathy from the audience. And his duet with Whaples, “A Bit of Earth,” is a distinct musical highlight. His ultimate transition from overwhelming melancholy to responsibility and even joy is an emotional triumph.
Perhaps the best songs in an overall well-balanced songbook belong to the young gardener, Dickon. Aubrey McGrath seizes this role, a kinsman to Shakespeare’s Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He moves the story with whimsy and wit. And his renditions of both “Winter’s on the Wing” and “Wick” (with Whaples) are among the show’s true hits. This recent Northwestern University graduate’s performance should have local directors champing at the bit to cast him in what’s next.
And then there’s the impeccable ensemble, the latest example in an oft-seen trend (Paramount’s Les Miserables and Marriott’s Anything Goes come immediately to mind) of stages featuring many players who have been and can be the leading ladies and gentlemen in many, many productions. Aika Nayyar, Allison Sill, Kevin Webb, Jeff Parker, Marya Grandy, Elizabeth Ledo and James Earl Jones II do Stanisflofsky (“No small parts…) proud.
They do Peck even prouder with wonderful harmonizing and vocal excellence in the all-cast numbers; “The House Upon the Hill” and “Come Spirit, Come Charm” are but two brilliant examples. So, too, flutist Suzanne Gillen deserves mention as the delightful Robin. May her plaudits be re-tweeted throughout the run.
The single nit is found in the Footlights.com program that fails to list the production’s order of song. It’s a “must-have” feature, not just for reviewers, but for discerning patrons who want and deserve to know the song titles and the characters singing them. And it’s necessary for the ride-home discussion lookups.
But that takes nothing from this magnificent production.
So with gardening season in full bloom, patrons of Chicagoland arts are strongly encouraged to visit Court Theatre’s, The Secret Garden. And do share it with a friend, because this is a secret much too good to be kept to one’s self.
“The Secret Garden” is presented Wednesday through Sunday, at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, through June 21. More information and tickets ($45 – $65; $25 for children ages 4-15) are available by phone at (773) 753-4472 or online here.