Review: ‘The Secret Garden’ at The Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia

The Secret Garden by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon at the Arden Theatre Company closes out the company’s 2015-2016 season. The Secret Garden is based on the beloved novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett and follows orphaned Mary Lennox as she navigates her new life in the foreboding Yorkshire mansion owned by her Uncle Archibald.

The Arden has tried something marvelous with this production by adding in stunning projections to help guide the audience around Mary’s world. The concept was co-conceived by Director Terrence J. Nolen and Scenic and Video Designer Jorge Cousineau.

Mary Lennox (Bailey Ryon) and Mrs. Medlock (Sally Mercer). Photo by Mark Garvin.
Mary Lennox (Bailey Ryon) and Mrs. Medlock (Sally Mercer). Photo by Mark Garvin.

Bailey Ryon leads the cast as Mary Lennox and gives a grounded performance full of nuanced charm, and a saucy attitude, and displays fine vocals on “The Girl I Mean to Be.”

Elisa Matthew’s (Lily) maternal presence and glittering soprano matched with Jeffrey Coon’s (Uncle Archibald) rich vocals are heavenly, as displayed in “A Girl in the Valley” and “How Could I Ever Know.”

Nikhil Saboo (Fakir) and Joanne Javien (Ayah) provide their own bit of magic and under Niki Cousineau’s movement direction, offer up some of the most memorable performances.

Sarah Gliko, who plays Mary’s mother, Rose, adds depth to a character who is written without much to go on. Nolan cleverly has Gliko acting as the robin Mary befriends when searching for her aunt’s lost garden, by having her play her piccolo on stage to simulate the Robin’s chirping.

Mary’s father, Albert, played by James Stabp, also provides wonderful vocals. Scott Greer doubles in the pit and on stage as Major Shelley. Sally Mercer’s Mrs. Medlock was delightfully assertive and strict and Erika Amato was hilariously stern as Mrs. Winthrop.

Hudson Orfe gave Colin Craven a beautiful likability as the sickly and dour heir to Misselthwaite Manor. He and Ryon have great chemistry on the stage as we hear in “Round-Shouldered Man.” And he and Matthews share a heartwarming rendition of “Come to My Garden/”Lift Me Up.”

Mary Lennox (Bailey Ryon), Colin Craven ( Hudson Orfe), and Dickon (Steve Pacek). Photo by Mark Garvin.
Mary Lennox (Bailey Ryon), Colin Craven ( Hudson Orfe), and Dickon (Steve Pacek). Photo by Mark Garvin.

Dickon was played by Steve Pacek, who introduces himself with “Winter’s on the Wing, “has a knack for comedy and was able to pull some light into what can be, a very dark musical, as he delights Mary with “Show Me The Key.”

Alex Keiper plays Martha, whose character befriends Mary and is the first character to really show kindness to the sullen girl with her energetic and emotional renditions of “If I Had A Fine White Horse” and “Hold On.”

Anthony Lawton, who plays Ben and Lieutenant Peter Wright, is also standout in the cast. His dialect was incredibly clear and his performance never strayed into the unbelievable. (I do wish attention was given to the dialects of the other actors, since the show centers around Yorkshire idiosyncrasies).

The standout song of the show, and of the Arden’s production, is the duet “Lily’s Eyes.” Jim Hogan’s (Dr. Neville Craven) ability to give the audience every ounce of his character’s complexity with such little stage time is remarkable. In “Lily’s Eyes,”getting to see and hear two powerhouse performers on stage is enough to make anyone giddy.

There were so many delightful moments in the show that I wish were used more  that I so wish could have been followed through with more. For instance, at one point Dickon plays the closet in Mary’s bedroom by holding a rod with clothes on it over his shoulder. This is really the only time this device was used in the show but more moments like it could have helped tie together the idea of Mary’s current life mirroring that of the popup book she is playing with in the beginning of the show.

The costumes, by Olivera Gajic, were perfectly period and helped to distinguish easily between the living and the dead characters. The lighting by Soloman Weisbard kept us in the dreary black and white world of Mary’s depression, up until Mary was finally able to see the beautiful color in spring.

The unsung hero of this production is that of Patrick Ressler who sits, completely engaged,  for almost the entire show and who displays the videos and the projections in front of the stage. The orchestrations, which were completely re-orchestrated by Larry Lees, from a twenty-three piece orchestra to an eleven piece orchestra, filled the space beautifully. Amanda Morton, who leads the orchestra, deserves a round of applause that could fill the universe.  At times, it was difficult to be able to fully appreciate Ryan Touhey’s wonderful music direction, because the ensemble’s numbers sounded like someone had turned the volume down too low. This was particularly true in one of the most jubilant numbers:  “Come Spirit, Come Charm,” where the song seemed anti-climactic.

Mary Lennox (Bailey Ryon) and Archibald Craven (Jeffrey Coon) Photo by Mark Garvin.
Mary Lennox (Bailey Ryon) and Archibald Craven (Jeffrey Coon) Photo by Mark Garvin.

The Secret Garden at the Arden is different from any version you may previously have seen. The cast has brought each of their own individual strengths to create a melting pot of stellar performances. Frances Hodgson Burnett says in her book:

Of course there must be lots of Magic in the world,’ he said wisely one day, ‘but people don’t know what it is like or how to make it. Perhaps the beginning is just to say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen. I am going to try and experiment.

The Arden’s Secret Garden is blooming with their daring new vision of this classic tale. This is a garden worth visiting.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.

The Secret Garden plays through June 26, 2016 at Arden Theatre Company – 40 North 2nd Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online.