The Tony Award-winning 1991 musical The Secret Garden is a beautiful show with a memorable score that can be adapted any number of ways to good effect.
As a case in point, the version now playing at the Playhouse San Antonio takes that idea to heart, featuring a strikingly minimal, impressionistic scenic design in place of the more traditional, foliage- and furniture-laden set that audiences would expect in an Edwardian-era theatrical – and it works marvelously.
The Secret Garden tells the story of young Mary Lennox, who lost her parents to a cholera outbreak in India. Unceremoniously shipped off to England to live with her estranged Uncle Archibald, she is dismayed to find herself ensconced in a gloomy mansion whose occupants seem drained of the very will to live.
Archibald is perpetually mourning the loss of Lily, his beloved wife, who died while giving birth to their son, Colin. Compounding this tragedy is the fact that the boy is bedridden and under the constant care of Archibald’s brooding physician brother, Neville, who was also secretly in love with Lily. Colin himself is convinced that he is doomed to die if he dares to venture outside and engage in the activities that normal children do.
With the help of the estate’s feisty maid, Martha, and Dickon, her free-spirited brother, the determined Mary strives to bring joy into the house once again.
The cast is marvelous. Nicholas Szoeke and Nicholas Ponting deliver the appropriate intensity as the tortured brothers. Their voices are splendid, too — their duet on “Lily’s Eyes” is truly spectacular.
Young Ashley Doyle is a wonderfully precocious Mary, and Nicholas Barron, as Colin, likewise displays a strong musical intuition for one so young. Carrie Daniels shines as Martha, belting the showstopper, “Hold On,” with real passion. Karol Cooley is a cheery, lithe-limbed Dickon, whose knowledge of the land gives Mary the inspiration she needs to reclaim the lives of her relatives.
Katherine Leidlein gives a touching performance as Lily, whose spirit casts a funereal spell over the manor even as she tries to offer reassurance to her loved ones. She also participates in a one of the show’s finest duets with Szoeke (“How Could I Ever Know”). Michael Cooling is letter-perfect as the gruff old gardener, Ben, who finally succumbs to Mary’s charms.
The ensemble, portraying various ghostly characters referred to in the libretto as the “Dreamers,” provide solid support, both vocally and dramatically. Sometimes appearing in full form onstage, sometimes in silhouette only, they also maneuver the set pieces, integrating vocal performance and movement in a mesmerizing ballet that enhances the poignancy of the work.
Speaking of set pieces, Ponting’s economical staging gives audiences the opportunity to focus more strongly on the songs and performances. His modular props relocate and transform smoothly and seamlessly to represent different locations around the manor, eliminating the need for narrative-disrupting blackouts. The ingenious way that he and director Laura Michelle Hoadley have worked out this approach adds an extra dimension to the piece that manages to transcend traditional stagecraft.
All the other technical specifications are exemplary. Musical director Geoffrey Waite’s six-piece ensemble is rich and lovely, and Courtnie Mercer’s choreography contributes mightily to the overall movement. The period-perfect costumes by Cordelia Rios integrate perfectly with Ponting’s design.
The Secret Garden plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through March 12 at the Playhouse San Antonio, 800 West Ashby Place. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (210) 733-7258.