The song is called “Come to My Garden.” How could I resist that call? It’s no secret the College of the Sequoias theater department puts on fine musicals, so I made a point to zip to Visalia to catch “The Secret Garden,” based on the classic tale by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
This big production features some sterling voices, impressive costumes, an ambitious scenic design and a tender fidelity to the haunting atmosphere demanded by an extremely complex storyline. While the show is not quite as polished as previous COS productions I’ve seen, there’s a lot to recommend. It continues through Sunday at the College of the Sequoias Theatre. [Details]
Pictured: Kaley McConnaughey, Ashley Taylor.
Key to any “Secret Garden” — this version by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon played on Broadway in 1991 — is finding a charismatic, talented young lady to play the pivotal role of Mary Lennox, the girl who loses her parents to cholera in India and is forced to move in with her gloomy uncle at his even gloomier English manor house. Kaley McConnaughey, a 13-year-old seventh grader at Green Acres Junior High School, is first-rate.
From her opening sullen and bewildered moments when she awakens in India to discover her parents and everyone around her dead, McConnaughey demonstrates strong theatrical instincts. With a wry sense of humor and an assured approach to the musical’s most emotional moments, her line readings, timing and way she comports herself on stage is impressive. And her vocals in such songs as “I Heard Someone Crying” and “Show Me the Key” are first-rate. She’s a natural.
Director James McDonnell and Linda Amaral (co-director and choreographer) are confronted with a narrative so complex it’s nearly dizzying in terms of numerous flashbacks and shifting settings. Ghosts play an important role — both of Mary’s dead parents, along with her deceased aunt, are prominent characters — and there’s a lot of logistics to consider, including a core group of four nicely utilized interpretive dancers and a large ensemble of Indian and English characters who waft almost continuously through the narrative offering commentary on the proceedings. There’s some clunkiness here, alas. Still, while I imagine some audience members might be confused if they aren’t familiar with “The Secret Garden” story, the production manages to be about as cohesive as is possible with the complicated storyline.
Standouts in the cast include a radiant and vocally strong Hanna Nielsen as Lily, Mary’s aunt; an accomplished Adam Rodriguez in the tough role of Mary’s stern and hurting uncle, Archibald Craven; a suitably surly Merina Amos as the haughty housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock; and David Rasner as an endearing Ben, the crusty old gardener. And, as far as I’m concerned, the world is a slightly better place after Ashley Taylor, as the gregarious servant Martha, sings the rousing song “Hold On” bathed in a gorgeous window pane of illumination (Steve LaMar designed the lights), one of the show’s emotional high points.
Key to “The Secret Garden” is the scenic design, of course. Chris Mangels devised a complex system of large arched set pieces — each depicting on one side the gloomy interiors of the house and on the other the foundation for the garden scenes — and has an army of stagehands maneuver them into various configurations. I like the human factor here: the way the set pieces almost seem to huddle and rumble together during transitions, almost as if they were organic. I have mixed feelings about the overall aesthetic resonance of the set in terms of the all-important garden scenes. It seems too bulky and lumbering. But the set pieces are highly effective in establishing the morose, moody presence of the manor house. Overall, I applaud the ingenious design.
As I do the ambition and dedication of this production. (A live orchestra, this one conducted by Mike Tackett, is always a treat.) It’s a stirring, poignant show. Yes, I heeded the call to come to the “Garden.” And I’m glad I did.