Jacob Farry and Sara Mahaffey in "The Secret Garden." Photo by Daren Scott
“The Secret Garden” stage musical resides in an ephemeral world where past and present converge, where the ghosts of lives interrupted by untimely death swirl and drift among the living. In their sphere is a young girl, Mary Lennox, who has lost her parents, and her hunchbacked uncle, Archibald Craven, who has lost his wife and seemingly his will to survive. The dark theatrical shadings of “The Secret Garden” musical that’s based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s book may be attributed to Marsha Norman, who wrote the 1991 show’s book and lyrics, and who’d earned a Pulitzer Prize eight years earlier for her devastating drama “’night, Mother.” Or it may be that in her and composer Lucy Simon’s Tony Award-winning retelling, the narrative’s focus shifted in large part from Mary to her uncle, in so doing heightening the tale’s complexity.
Regardless, “The Secret Garden” that opened Friday night at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad under the direction of Rosina Reynolds is meaty storytelling in the Gothic tradition that only late in Act 2 flirts with emotive melodrama.
An unhappy mansion in the Yorkshire of the early 20th century is the setting for this story of healing and personal reclamation. It’s there that Mary (newcomer Sara Mahaffey, making her professional debut) is sent to live with her despondent uncle (David S. Humphrey) after her parents die in a cholera outbreak. What – and who – she discovers at Misselthwaite Manor proves restorative and life-changing.
The beauty of NVA’s production is in the fluid choreography by Nadia Guevara, whose ghostly chorus, or dreamers as they’re described in the script, are the touchstone presences on the stage. Musical director Tony Houck leads an excellent five-person mini-orchestra that delivers with feeling “The Secret Garden’s” persistently heartfelt score. The versatile Humphrey, whose turns this year range from the charismatic Professor Harold Hill in the Welk Resort Theatre’s “The Music Man” to the lecherous boss in San Diego Musical Theatre’s “9 to 5,” is “The Secret Garden’s” most compelling character. His “A Bit of Earth” and numbers with silken-voiced Samantha Rose Steinberg (as Archibald’s late wife, Lily) are tender and memorable.
Mahaffey shows promise in the principal role of Mary, and while the shouting back and forth between her and Jacob Farry (as Archibald’s bedridden son Colin) borders on the shrill, she nicely inhabits Burnett’s heroine’s initial pouting petulance and her overriding curiosity. But Humphrey’s brooding but sympathetic Archibald is definitely missed in the long stretch in the second act without him.
Costume designer Elisa Benzoni conveys well the look of Edwardian England, and New Village’s relatively small stage is rightly devoted to the garden wall and what may lie beyond it.
“The Secret Garden” is lengthy (two hours, 20 minutes) and not without its superfluous, expository numbers, but like NVA’s production last year of “Big River,” it’s a significant achievement in staging musical theater for Executive Artistic Director Kristianne Kurner and the Carlsbad company now in its 17th season. (Review originally published in San Diego Union-Tribune on 11/13/17.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat