If there’s a show that fits the definition of a “cult musical,” it’s probably The Secret Garden. The show was a hit with families on Broadway in the early nineties, winning three Tony Awards and running for nearly two years. With its emphasis on soaring ballads rather than flashy dance numbers, and with a happy ending that takes a while to arrive, The Secret Garden is a lovely show, and its charms are evident in the production at Wilmington, Delaware’s The Candlelight Theatre.
Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s novel, The Secret Garden tells the story of Mary Lennox, a young orphan who is sent to be raised at her hardhearted uncle’s English estate. Things are difficult for Mary at first, but eventually she finds the entrance to a hidden garden that brings her contentment. And Mary’s attitude becomes so upbeat that she brings some long-missing happiness to her gloomy uncle and her sick cousin.
It’s a tender story, and The Secret Garden is a gentle, often soothing, show. The show mixes reality with dream sequences, as Mary’s Uncle Archibald finds refuge from his harsh life in memories of his late wife Lily, while Mary herself is visited by the spirits of her late parents and the people she knew in India as a very young child. The score by Lucy Simon (music) and Marsha Norman (lyrics) is filled with wistful, dreamily melodic songs that give the characters a lot to reflect upon. And Norman’s book fleshes out the original story a bit, notably with a clash between Archibald and his brother Neville that gives the characters some depth.
Director Bob Kelly’s production takes a while to get going. During the early scenes the storyline was unclear, and it was sometimes hard to figure out what was happening on the stage because of the volume of the ensemble numbers. I wish some of the scenes were more dynamic as some of the best numbers, which are beautifully sung by Mark Dixon and Patrick Ruegsegge, like “A Bit of Earth” and the duet “Lily’s Eyes,” are staged with the actors seated for much of the time.
Kelly receives wonderful performances from his talented cast, which is filled with fine singers. Mark Dixon shows off a fine tenor as Archibald, and he’s well-paired with the lilting soprano of Erin-Michelle Waldie as Lily ( in ‘Come to My Garden” and in her duet with Dixon – “How Could I Ever Know.” And Patrick Ruegsegger is equally fine as Neville, and delivers a powerful “Disappear.”
Katelyn Gallo makes a nicely determined Mary (alternating with Samantha Deutsch in the role). Gallo’s emotional rendition of “The Girl I Meant to Be” opened the second act. Luke Plunkett played the frustrated and bratty Colin Craven. He contributed lovely vocals on “Lift Me Up” and he and Gallo displayed much chemistry together.
And Tori Mittelman and Anthony Connell, as a spunky maid (Martha) and her benevolent brother (Dickon), sing superbly during “If I Had a Fine White Horse” and “Hold On” and “Winter’s on the Wing,” and they both give the show a burst of energy and good spirits. They’re delightful.
Jeff Reim’s two-tiered set makes the garden seem more spacious than it really is. And the costumes by Dewey and Tony Oriente are never less than convincing. There was no credited choreographer. There was a pre-recorded track used in this production. The musical director was David T. Snyder, and the music operator was Michelle Mattera. I really missed hearing this gorgeous score performed by a live orchestra.
The Secret Garden at The Candlelight Theatre will charm theatregoers of all ages. This is a garden well-worth visiting.
Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes, including an intermission.
(Note: Tori Mittelman is one of my fellow writers here at DCMetroTheaterArts and this did not influence my review).