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A uniquely beautiful ‘The Secret Garden’ blossoms at Court Theatre

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, “The Secret Garden,” is a classic of English children’s literature. But while its central character is a 10-year-old girl, it tells a decidedly adult story – one that deals in the most unflinching way with everything from sickness, death and mourning, to the possibility of rebirth. In addition, it is laced with notions of cultural and class differences as East meets West and upstairs interacts with downstairs.

The emotionally heated 1991 musical based on Burnett’s story – with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon – is a sophisticated beauty. And Court Theatre’s revival of the show, with exquisite direction by Charles Newell, masterful musical direction by Doug Peck, and a bravura ensemble that grabs hold of its characters’ anguish, determination and quirkiness with unflinching honesty, is nothing short of a masterpiece.

‘THE SECRET GARDEN’

Highly recommended

When: Through June 21

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis

Tickets: $25 – $65

Info: (773) 753-4472; CourtTheatre.org

Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission

Haunted and haunting, “The Secret Garden” begins in 1906 as Capt. Albert Lennox, his wife Rose, and their daughter, Mary, are living in colonial India. Hit by a cholera epidemic, only Mary (Tori Whaples) survives. Now an orphan, she is sent back to England to take up residence with her only relative, uncle Archibald Craven (Rob Lindley), whose gloomy North Yorkshire manor is a totally foreign Edwardian gothic world.

For the past decade, Archibald has been inconsolable over the death of his beloved wife, Lily (Jennie Sophia), a warm-hearted beauty who looked past Archibald’s physical deformity and shyness, and brought him great happiness before dying in childbirth. The arrival of Mary, a prickly character every bit as lonely as her uncle – and with hazel eyes that remind him of Lily – only complicates matters for this remote man.

Jennie Sophia and Rob Lindley as Lily and Archibald Craven in “The Secret Garden” at Court Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Jennie Sophia and Rob Lindley as Lily and Archibald Craven in “The Secret Garden” at Court Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Yet tended by the manor’s pragmatic staff – chambermaid Martha (Elizabeth Ledo), her nature-loving younger brother, Dickon (Aubrey McGrath), and veteran gardener, Ben (James Earl Jones II) – Mary blossoms, particularly after she is led into the sealed off “secret garden” that was once the joyful preserve of her aunt. In turn, she brings Colin Craven (Trent Noor), the sickly, “hidden” son of Archibald and Lily, back to health, despite the creepy motives of Archibald’s younger brother, physician Neville Craven (Jeff Parker) to keep him an invalid.

In the hugely demanding, make-or-break role of Mary, Whaples (a sixth grader who is part of the impressive north suburban Performers School Ensemble), is a marvel, bringing both the perfect bearing, accent and attitude to her role, and a singing voice of exceptional expressiveness. It will be fascinating to watch her career.

In a story full of ghosts, it is Sophia’s Lily who floods the stage with emotion. Just watch her face as Lindley (in superb form as a man wracked by grief and fiercely remembered love) sings about her magical eyes, and you understand why he adored her. She emanates a unique heat. And so do the living: Ledo, who, as Martha, brings a knowing sparkle to her dealings with Mary; Jones, who matches the girl’s flinty edges with his own; and McGrath, as the boyish spirit with a special connection to nature’s life-death cycles, and an enchanting relationship to a beguiling robin played by redheaded flutist Suzanne Gillen. (Katie Spelman is the ingenious choreographer.)

Aubrey McGrath and Tori Whaples in “The Secret Garden” at Court Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Aubrey McGrath and Tori Whaples in “The Secret Garden” at Court Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Noor’s portrayal of the isolated Colin also is masterful, and it is great fun to watch the fireworks between him and Whaple as two smart, isolated cousins with far too much knowledge of death lock wits.

Parker neatly delineates Neville’s resentment and cruelty. Marya Grandy is all cool propriety as the Cravens’ housekeeper. And Allison Sill nails the character of Mary’s distant, snobbish mother with just a few comically revealing steps into Lily’s garden, just as Kevin Webb, as Mary’s father, suggests his attachment to his daughter.

Trent Noor (in wheelchair) and Tori Whaples in “THe Secret Garden” at Court Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Trent Noor (in wheelchair) and Tori Whaples in “THe Secret Garden” at Court Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

The spirit of the East burns brightly through the presence of Alka Nayyar as Ayah, Mary’s nanny in India, who moves through the show using the moves of classical Indian dance. Those rhythms are an intrinsic part of Simon’s score, too, with Peck (on piano and harmonium) leading a small, vivid orchestra that includes the virtuosic Ronnie Malley (who also worked with Peck on “Jungle Book”) on sitar, oud and percussion, along with Gillen, Heather Boehm, Chuck Bontrager and Elizabeth Anderson.

The show’s elegant design is the work of John Culbert (set), Marcus Doshi (lighting), Mara Blumenfeld (costumes) and Josh Horvath (sound). But in the end, it is Newell’s ability to see right into the deeply shattered hearts of this musical’s characters, to find the keys to unlocking their grief, and to ultimately make way for a profusion of petals to rain down in a wondrous celebration of new life, that makes this production such a triumph.

Note: At certain performances, Maya Hlava will play Mary and Jack Helm will play Colin.

And finally, one small quibble, though Court is not alone in this recent, misguided trend. When presenting a musical it is only fair to its creators, performers and audiences to list the song titles in the program. Why this list is now frequently omitted defies understanding.