Thursday, December 14, 2017

42nd Street Moon makes a “Garden” grow

"I Heard Someone Crying": Katie Maupin as Mary, Sharon Rietkirk as Lily,
Brian Watson as Archibald. Photo by Ben Krantz Studios.

42nd Street Moon has made a shrewd choice in selecting The Secret Garden, Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved novel, as its holiday show. Like A Christmas Carol, it offers English charm, a story of redemption and rebirth, cute kids, and even a few ghosts—but isn’t so familiar to San Francisco audiences. Furthermore, The Secret Garden was the first Tony-winning musical to have an all-female writing team, but it often gets overlooked in conversations about women’s contributions to Broadway history. In a season when we’re all hearing a lot about the structural forces that make it hard for female artists to succeed, how nice of 42nd Street Moon to revive Norman and Simon’s work – under the guidance of a female director, music director, and choreographer to boot.

This version of The Secret Garden emphasizes the Gothic aspects of the source material – I never before realized how much Burnett lifted from the Brontë sisters. Mary Lennox, a British child raised in India, comes to Yorkshire to live with Archibald Craven, her uncle-by-marriage, after her parents die of cholera. But Archibald is haunted by the death of his wife Lily, and can hardly relate to Mary—or, worse, to his own son Colin. (In a kid-friendly version of Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic” plotline, Colin is an invalid whose existence is kept secret from Mary until she stumbles upon his sickroom.) The first musical number that stands out is a trio for Mary, Archibald, and ghost-Lily, awake in the middle of the night in this mansion on the lonely moor.

Norman and Simon also emphasize Mary’s time in India, which can register as the kind of well-meaning early ‘90s “multiculturalism” that nowadays seems a little naïve. When Mary sings an incantation in an Indian language and does gestures from Indian classical dance, I found myself hoping that everyone involved in the production had done their research and was handling things with sensitivity. The Indian characters do seem to be played by actors of South Asian heritage (Michael Mohammed and Anjali Blacker), though it grates somewhat how much time they spend moving furniture and how little time the show actually focuses on them.

Lily is a tricky role: a beautiful, endlessly loving ghost who sings in a soprano as high and pure as the wind on the moors. Sharon Rietkirk—unamplified, like all the performers—is everything the part requires, but I was a little surprised to find this figure of Victorian “angel in the garden” purity in a female-authored musical.

Scott Hayes as Ben and Katie Maupin as Mary. Photo by Ben Krantz Studios.
Fortunately, not all the female characters are so one-dimensional. As played by 12-year-old Katie Maupin, with a clear voice and impressively thick pigtail braids, Mary is an entirely believable little girl. The wild tantrum she throws to avoid being sent away to school garnered spontaneous audience applause. But Maupin, and the writers, also capture Mary’s softer side, the way she gradually blossoms like one of the flowers in her garden. (As you might imagine, this show is big on horticultural metaphors.)

At first, the casting and costuming of the brothers Archibald and Neville Craven seems a bit odd: Archibald, the older brother, is played by a younger-looking actor, and although the script makes a big deal about Archibald’s hunchback, it is barely noticeable. But all doubts are removed when Brian Watson (as Archibald) and Edward Hightower (as Neville) begin to sing the famous duet “Lily’s Eyes”: Watson’s tenor and Hightower’s baritone blend beautifully.

I was less impressed with Keith Pinto as Dickon, who helps lead Mary to the secret garden and teaches her how to coax the plants back to life. His Yorkshire accent often sounds more like Southern American, and, especially in his first solo “Winter’s on the Wing,” his singing style is too contemporary and “pop” for Simon’s classically-influenced score.

Not so Heather Orth, who plays Dickon’s sister, Martha. Her Yorkshire accent is precise, she handles the charm song “A Fine White Horse” and the stirring ballad “Hold On” with ease, and, more than anyone else onstage, remembers that great acting is reacting.

The holidays are a time for connecting with family, for practicing kindness and generosity, for honoring the past while looking forward to the new year. The Secret Garden, with its fable-like story of a beautiful garden that redeems three lonely people, suits this mood and this time of year perfectly. It asks, what will you work to make blossom in your life come spring?

The Secret Garden, presented by 42nd Street Moon, runs through December 24 at the Gateway Theater in San Francisco. More info here.

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