“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden,” or so claims Frances Hodgson Burnett in her 1911 children’s book The Secret Garden. Eighty years later, the much-loved story was made into a Tony-award winning musical which has now come to San Francisco’s Gateway Theatre this holiday season.
42nd Street Moon’s production of The Secret Garden is very well sung, costumed and performed. Unfortunately, it seems to have overstretched the theater’s technical capabilities, taking away from the audience’s enjoyment of the show.
Before we go any further, I think it’s only fair to disclose my love of children’s literature and particularly The Secret Garden. I could probably quote most of the lines from the book or movie at the drop of the hat, and went into this show with the entire musical score memorized. That stated, I had never actually seen the show performed. Still, I am critiquing this production rather than the story or its translation into a musical. I would encourage everyone who loves children’s lit or gardening to familiarize themselves with this heartwarming story in some way, whether through the book, the 1993 movie or this show.
In many ways, the show is fantastic. The actors are incredible. Twelve-year-old Katie Maupin is very impressive in the lead role of Mary Lennox, who is on stage more often than not. She is convincing as the sour girl who comes from India and allows the audience to soften with her as she mourns her parents and adjusts to her life in an English manor.
The three actors who perform the whole show with a Yorkshire accent do an impressive job. The actors playing Martha (Heather Orth), Dickon (Keith Pinto) and Mrs. Medlock (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) each have to master the difficult Yorkshire accent when singing and speaking, and they do so almost flawlessly. Sharon Rietkerk is also excellent in the role of Lily Craven, the motherly ghost ever present in the house and garden. She floats through the show guiding and shaping events from the background and singing in her haunting soprano.
The musicians who perform in a tiny amount of space behind the stage were amazing. They manage to sound like a much larger orchestra than just three people. I can’t imagine the work it must take to sound that good with minimal space and light to see the sheet music during the show.
For the sake of the performers, I honestly wish that I could say only good things about the show. Unfortunately, there were a number of problems that detracted from the magic of the story.
The biggest disappointment is the garden. So much of the book is about the beauty of a garden coming back to life after years of neglect and the children mirroring that change. However, in this show, the garden is relegated to the projections on three screens around the stage. It makes the garden feel dead, even when it’s teaming with life. Because the plants are all just projections, the actors never get to directly interact with the garden—the source of life and change in the story—and the show loses some of its soul as a result. It might have been better if the audience were left to imagine the garden entirely rather than having the images so removed from the actors.
There are also a number of smaller disappointments, from a litany of late light cues to a projector failure at the beginning of act two on the night I saw the show (although I hope this was an anomaly rather than a pattern). The costumes were beautiful overall, however the actors’ shoes and stockings were consistently wrong for the period. Pinto was a much too old for the role of the teenaged Dickon and Brian Watson was too handsome for the role of the hunchbacked Archibald Craven. But I’m willing to forgive a lot considering how good they are at singing.
As a concert of The Secret Garden’s libretto, this production is great. The vocals are wonderful often matching or surpassing the talent of the Broadway cast. The staging and technical aspects of the show, however, are severely lacking. Particularly the way the garden is handled detracts from the show overall and makes the show less enjoyable than if the projections hadn’t been there at all. The talent and hard work of the actors is undeniable and, I believe, make the show worth seeing despite the production’s other shortcomings.
42nd Street Moon’s production of The Secret Garden is playing through December 24, 2017 at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. The show runs about 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets range from $25-$75.
Photos courtesy of Ben Krantz Studios