Victorian era author of The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett, would never have imagined her character of Lily, the young wife of hunchback Uncle Archibald Craven, who tragically passes away before the story even begins, would come to life on a musical stage.
Yet it is with this magical opening to the Tony Award-winning show at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall that audiences might appreciate the many lessons of this story that are perhaps left unsaid in the pages of this 1911 children’s literature classic.
Stepping down from a giant portrait, Lily sings the haunting and beautiful “Come to My Garden” lending new meaning to her role, and to the garden’s role in this story.
The musical is narrated by a Greek chorus of sorts, identified as spirits, or ghosts as my daughter correctly interpreted their sparkling all white dress. It’s comprised of Lily and everyone familiar to Mary Lennox from her earlier life in India. Unlike the emphasis of the original material, this show boldly explores themes of grief and loss, establishing a more somber tone. There’s even unrequited love between Archibald’s younger brother and Lily which was eloquently shared in the moving brothers’ duet performance of “Lily’s Eyes.”
Ultimately however, it is still young Mary’s triumphant story of transformation that is worthy of tears in the end as she faces not only her own past trauma, but helps her cousin Colin to overcome his illness and her Uncle find solace, while finding herself in a home where she is cherished.
Lily was the sister of Mary’s mother Rose. Orphaned by a cholera epidemic in India, Mary must travel to Yorkshire to live with her only relatives at Misselthwaite Manor where ten years before, Lily fell from a tree in her garden, and eventually succumbed to her injuries, leaving Colin motherless and sickly.
Her garden was locked with no one to look after it. Upon Mary’s arrival, with the wind “wutherin’ ” outside, the floodgates of memories and grief are opened, and eventually the garden door.
As Lily and Rose continue to occupy both the spaces in Mary and Archibald’s minds and physically on stage, it is their backstory that becomes the driving force behind the garden’s rehabilitative power to bring their surviving family members together for a happier future.
Children who have read the book may focus at first on some of the different details in this version of the story. This will make for an interesting discussion about dramatic purpose during the lengthy intermission. As the show progresses the beautiful costuming and dialect details will bring to life for them characters from the book.
Children and adults alike will appreciate everything from cranky Ben Weatherstaff’s hat and beard to the endearing Martha, played by Daisy Eagan, the TONY Award Winner for her role as Mary on Broadway in 1991. Talking and singing to Mary, her face framed by her red curls, Eagan embodies the same matter of fact personality that Mary warms to in the book.
With powerful ensemble singing, the chorus weaves in and out of a set design that while sparse was so evocative of the story’s setting it brought my daughter to the edge of her seat to see inside Mary’s bedroom, peer around corners of an elegant mansion as she searches for someone who is crying, or skips rope through the garden hedges, coming closer and closer to the one that was Lily’s, and once filled with roses, The Secret Garden.
- The Secret Garden is at the Sidney Harmon Hall through December 31, 2016. The show has a running time of 2 1/2 hours with intermission.
- I recommend the show for ages 8 and up.
- The Shakespeare Theatre has made this accessible for families. They are offering special pricing – get $40 tickets with a minimum purchase of four tickets. Purchase online.
- Their Family Week Series takes place December 11 to 18, 2016. There will be backstage tours, hands-on workshops and more to celebrate this beloved children’s novel and musical.
- Street parking is not easily available at Sidney Harman Hall so allow for time to park, and take advantage of garage parking under the theatre or other nearby options.
Photos courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.