Center Stage’s production of “The Secret Garden” is an emotional and energetic production bursting with talented actors who bring the script to life. Most viewers are familiar with the children’s book published by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1910, and adapted many times to stage and screen. Center Stage’s production is a musical, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon (sister of Carly Simon).
The story follows a girl, Mary Lennox, who is orphaned by a cholera epidemic and must travel from India to the wilds of the English countryside. There she lives with her uncle, Archibald Craven, who is still in the throes of grief from the death of his wife some tens year prior. Mary discovers a secret garden that once belonged to her aunt but has since been forgotten, and with the help of her newfound friends she brings back life to the garden and the Craven household. Ultimately, it is a story about how love and bravery overcome in the face of overwhelming grief and trauma.
One of the greatest strengths of the show is an ensemble of actors who consistently work to build their characters through solid acting and polished singing. Given that all the actors in the show had extensive musical experience, it is unsurprising that the singing was very consistent throughout the show. This production brings in a cast that is almost entirely new to Center Stage, and all actors stepped confidently into their roles. The children in the show were impressive, with Mary (Caitlin Cohn) and Dickon (Cameron Bartell) being especially captivating. Cohn embodied the Mary from the book, building a petulant, wild but incredibly compelling protagonist for the show. Bartell, though his stage presence was minimal, created a sense of Dickon’s playful wisdom in his interactions with other characters.
The only minor weakness in the show came not from the production, but from the script. Though the two women who adapted it are clearly immensely talented, the focus of the script was purposely shifted to the interpersonal journeys of the adults to create a broader appeal. While the development of the characters was effective, it took away from time that might have been spent with the immensely talented younger cast members, building the children’s characters and increasing the impact of the story’s conclusion. Still, Mary firmly holds her place as the protagonist, and it is her fiery and “quite contrary” personality that drives the progression of the plot.
The set for the show is simple but effective, using the torn pages of a book as a color changing backdrop, and a rising and falling platform in the middle of the stage as a multi-use prop. Small trees or pieces of furniture were occasionally brought on stage, but it was the ghostly presence of actors that created a scene. A surprising amount of the show is set inside, and so it was a slight disappointment not to see more flora. Nonetheless, the set effectively creates changes in atmosphere and space to enhance the events taking place on stage.
The choreography for the show helped to build the characters’ development, effectively revealing their varied personalities and states of mind. It also created a strong sense of setting. The simplicity of the set meant that between scenes, there were only minor changes that occurred. One particularly effective example of choreography occurred during Mary’s nighttime wanderings of the house, when the presence of many adult cast members standing in picture frames created a feeling of the expansive loneliness of the house.
Overall, Center Stage’s performance of “The Secret Garden” is a wonderful production of a timeless story. The ghostly presence of dead characters and the vibrancy of those still living built a strong sense of tension throughout. It is worth seeing, especially if you are a fan of the book. The show runs on the Main Stage through November 29. Tickets are available on Center Stage’s website https://tix.centerstage.org or at their box office.