KPBS AIRDATE: July 26, 2002
I took my 9 year-old niece to see “The Secret Garden” at La Jolla Stage Company. I thought it was an ideal choice, since she’s almost exactly the same age as the beloved, strong-willed heroine, Mary Lennox. Katy savored the proximity of the actors in the cozy but nicely expanded storefront space. She thought the show was very dark, and a little scary at times, with all the walking dead, but she thoroughly enjoyed it. She wasn’t always sure which characters were actually alive, or what the relationships were between them, but she definitely grasped the storyline, and it made her want to go back to Ohio and finish reading the Frances Hodgson Burnett original. I’d call that a multi-level success. She liked the play and it made her want to read the book — and see more musicals; it doesn’t get better than that.
Set in the early 1800’s, Burnett’s classic has elements of a fairy tale, with magic, anthropomorphic animals, miraculous transformations, and a family reunion that spells a happy ending. The spoiled, rich girl becomes everyone’s darling, a bit too abruptly in this production. During the symbolic, game-playing opening sequence, Mary is orphaned by a cholera epidemic in India, after which she’s sent to live with her sad and sour uncle in Yorkshire, England. That’s where the fun begins, though playwright Marsha Norman keeps having those pesky ghosts hang around, commenting on the action and often stopping it dead in its tracks, especially under Tim Heitman’s static direction.
As soon as Marcelle Friedman’s solemnly likable Mary meets up with Karin Bamesberger’s irresistible chambermaid Martha and Patrick McNaughton’s delightful, magical Dickon, the energy level soars. Providing counterpoint, Christopher Miller is aptly somber and brooding as Mary’s hunchbacked uncle Neville, pining for his lost love. Michelle Hakala is enchanting as the mystical Aunt Lily who died in childbirth and left behind a broken-hearted husband and a sickly son, as well as her titular garden. Hakala’s voice is glorious, and her portrayal is poignant, in a role that can be cloying. Scott Lacy does an outstanding job in his musical direction of Lucy Simon’s thorny score, even though the secondaries aren’t as strong as the leads.
The sets and costumes are simple but serviceable; what this production really needs is a little movement, some choreographed action. But for a low budget and a small space, this is a praiseworthy undertaking, a challenging musical that’s evocative for adults and stimulating for kids.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.