Delicate Joy Fills “The Secret Garden” at MTH

A cast of actors cast in dark dramatic blue lighting.

The cast of The Secret Garden (Cory Weaver)

It’s a bit perplexing that it’s taken more than two decades for Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s 1991 musical The Secret Garden to have its professional premiere in Kansas City. The show is adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel of the same name and joins a large collection of beloved adaptations. Generations of children, especially young girls, grew up on various iterations of this tale. (The 1993 film was a staple in my own childhood.) For whatever reason, it’s taken this long for the multi-Tony-winning production to come to town (in a professional capacity), but the musical, currently onstage at Music Theater Heritage, is a wonderfully sweet production set to satisfy those longtime fans and engage new viewers, especially younger audiences.

The Secret Garden tells the story of Mary Lennox (Lainey McManamy), a young English girl living in early-20th Century colonial India. When her parents die during a cholera outbreak which she miraculously survives, she is taken to live with her uncle Archibald (MTH Artistic Director Tim Scott, making a welcome return to the main stage). His sprawling estate is a sad place since the death of his wife Lily (Lauren Braton), whose spirit—the emotionally haunting kind, not the spooky sort—wanders the mansion, her operatics serving as a direct manifestation and arbiter of Archibald’s grief.

But Mary feels endeared to her uncle, distant as he is, and befriends the warm but no-nonsense Yorkshire chambermaid Martha (Maggie Hutchinson) and her brother Dickon, a puckish animal charmer. The closest thing the show has to a villain is Archibald’s brother, Dr. Craven (Bradley Thomas), who is set on sending Mary away. But even his callousness feels born out of genuine care for his brother and his own extreme grief. In various iterations of this story, the character is often reduced to simplistic, purely machiavellian machinations, but Thomas’ take is much more deeply human.

Upon her arrival, Mary is fascinated by her uncle’s estate and its sprawling gardens—especially her late aunt’s special garden, which has been locked off, its roses and other beauties allowed to wither and die. During her explorations, Mary also discovers her cousin, Colin (Patrick McGee), a young boy who has been shuttered away either out of fear of sickness and disability or because of their actual effects. It’s not entirely clear which is the case, and the ambiguity is rather compelling. Not all elements of the original story have aged particularly well, especially Colin’s disability and his borderline-mystical relationship with his wheelchair. This production cannot fully overcome its most outdated elements but they are far less egregiously glaring than might be expected. McGee also does a commendable job finding the life and depth of Colin’s character.

It’s always a gamble mounting a show led by child actors but, in addition to McGee’s Colin, McManamy gives an exceptional performance, anchoring the entire production. Her Mary Lennox is forceful and obstinate, but the layers run deep beneath her hard mask, allowing nuanced flashes of insecurity to shine through. Her vocals, as with the rest of the cast, are also impressive. There’s no doubt some audience members will go into this show with some misplaced preconceptions, expecting a stuffy reflection on Victorian topiaries, but the music ranges from haunting operatics to jaunty bops—and that scope helps drive the show’s clipping pace, keeping it from ever feeling stodgy. Yi-Chein Lee’s set (accentuated by Shelbi Arndt dramatic lighting) amplifies the show’s feeling of wonder and mystery. Filigree cutouts and columns that double as trees, with their midsections seemingly made of vertical lines of taut string, add depth and intrigue, partially obscuring the band onstage. The effect allows us to imagine the expansive estate and intricate garden mazes, and the mysteries they may contain, in the intimate theatre space. It’s clear every element on display has been carefully crafted but director Jessalyn Kincaid’s touch feels exceptionally light throughout it all.

“The Secret Garden” runs through April 23 at Music Theater Heritage at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd. For more information, call (816) 221-6987 or visit musictheaterheritage.com.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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