May 6, 2008
The Road Company's Spellbinding Secret Garden
Theater: The Road Company
Show Title: The Secret Garden
Opened: May 2, 2008
Seen: May 2, 2008
Reviewer: Ryan Bunch
Submitted: May 5, 2008
The Road Company Theatre in New Jersey is currently presenting Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s musical The Secret Garden, and it is a beautiful production.
The Secret Garden is adapted from the classic children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett about a girl, Mary Lennox, who is sent to live with her reclusive uncle at his mysterious old estate in England after her parents die in an epidemic of cholera in India. The uncle’s old house is full of secrets, including the neglected garden once tended by his deceased wife and a little boy named Colin who has been hidden away in a dark room, bedridden from an immobilizing illness. Mary herself is sickly and surly when she first comes to the house, but through her interactions with Colin and the servants, she learns to give and receive compassion. Her interest in finding the secret garden and bringing it back to life leads her to heal the wounds of a family racked by tragedy.
The story itself contains deeply romantic imagery and the suggestion of magic surrounding the dark, imposing mansion and its garden—first dead and gloomy, then alive and lush. This imagery is a major part of the show’s appeal, and director Jo McMahon and her creative team have succeeded masterfully in creating just the right atmosphere.
The beautiful set and costume designs combine with music and technical aspects of the production to create an interplay of light and dark impressions of the picturesque setting. The music is full of rich, romantic choral passages and colorful instrumentation. The orchestra plays this music nearly flawlessly, and along with the actors and the chorus, it is amplified through the sound system to effect a complete saturation of the theater with sound and mood. The singing, from both soloists and chorus, is sonorous, expressive and technically proficient.
The cast is strong. Liesel Groninger is terrific in the role of Mary, with all her changes of mood, and Fernando Gonzalez brings out the humanity in her austere and emotionally distant Uncle Archibald. Other notable performances include David Mooney as Dr. Craven, the stern, psychologically complex brother of Archibald and physician to Colin; Jamie Lynne McMahon as Martha the chambermaid who coaxes Mary out of her grief; Michael Kelley as Dickon, the boy who has his finger on the pulse of nature; and Jeremy Shriver as Colin. The ghosts of Mary’s parents (Faith Charlton and Jeff Beiter), Archibald’s wife Lily (Nicole Gross), and others appear periodically throughout the show, and provide some of the most beautiful singing. In particular, Gross’s sound is as pure as the white dress of her costume and the ethereal light projected around her at key moments, another example of the successful integration of mood in this production.
Of course, singling out these performances is not to suggest that others are not just as strong. The entire show is uniformly good, and both singing and acting are consistently professional. On top of all that, it’s a show with a great deal of sentiment, and a great deal to say about the beauty of life.
The Secret Garden runs through May 17 at the Grand Theatre in Williamstown, NJ. For tickets and information call 856-728-2120 or visit www.roadcompany.com.
Ryan Bunch is a vocal instructor, writer and composer specializing in musical theater and theater for young audiences. He has provided voice training, musical direction, songwriting, script development and educational services for the Opera Company of Philadelphia, Mainstage Center for the Arts, Center Stage Productions, Chichester School District, West Chester Summer Stage, Renaissance Artist Puppet Company, and the Players Board of Chestnut Hill Academy and Springside School. For additional information visit www.ryanbunch.com.