Under thoughtful direction by Tim Larson, with assistant director Catherine McTamaney, musical direction from John Ray and featuring some of the most surprising vocal performances seen onstage during this current local theatrical season, THE SECRET GARDEN continues its run at Brentwood’s Towne Centre Theatre (136 Frierson Street, Brentwood, TN 37027) with performances through Saturday, August 26.
Based on the beloved children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, THE SECRET GARDEN tells the early 20th century story of young Mary Lennox, an English girl orphaned in India after the death of her parents in the wake of a cholera outbreak. With no other immediate family, Mary is sent back to England to live with Archibald Craven, an uncle she’s never met. Things are further complicated by the fact that Mary bears a striking resemblance to Archibald’s late wife, Lily. There’s also a bit of mystery surrounding Mary’s sickly young cousin Colin whose father keeps him locked away, much like Archibald keeps his late wife’s once beautiful garden a secret.
First presented on Broadway in 1991, with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman (her theatrical credits range from the Pulitzer Prize winning ‘NIGHT MOTHER to the libretto for THE COLOR PURPLE) and music by Lucy Simon (Grammy-winning recording artist who also composed the music for a recent staging of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO), and starring Mandy Patinkin as Uncle Archibald, THE SECRET GARDEN garnered seven Tony nods and an impressive fourteen Drama Desk nominations—winning three and four respectively.
While I had indeed read Burnett’s original novel and, over the years, have seen more than one made-for-TV and film adaptations, this particular incarnation, not just a stage play, but a musical, had somehow alluded me. The same cannot be said for Larson. When I spoke with him recently for an upcoming Rapid Fire 20 Q, he revealed that he had seen the show during its Broadway run, and had always wanted to direct it.
Having not seen the musical stage adaptation, I did a little homework in preparation for both my interviews with Larson and his cast, and in anticipation of seeing Towne Centre’s production. Based solely on my research, I wondered how the more intimate space at Towne Centre would affect the presentation of what is typically a more grand-scale musical. Of course with Larson at the helm, there was no cause for concern. While larger productions might incorporate elaborate set pieces, possibly even an intricate garden maze, a plethora of plant life and such, Larson cleverly choses to keep the set and props to a minimum, bringing the show into the 21st century with the aide of a multimedia screen backdrop projecting images of the manor house, Archibald’s library, the greenhouse and ultimately the titular garden. Incorporating such modern visuals not only solves the small venue challenges, but also brings the piece right back to Burnett’s literary origins, allowing the audience to use their imagination to fill in the gaps.
For Larson’s Mary, he cast relative newcomer Faith Dengate. While Dengate did indeed appear in Towne Centre’s 2015 Christmas offering, THE SECRET GARDEN marks her debut in a lead role. In spite of her youth, or perhaps because of it, Dengate tackles the role with the perfect mixture of moxie and bubbling uncertainty. Because of the character’s misfortune, she’s been allowed to become somewhat of a brat, and while I suspect Dengate is anything but in real life, she plays the sour and doubting Mary to the max. While watching Dengate’s abrasive Mary go toe-to-toe with those around her, I couldn’t help but hope that someday soon, someone will cast Dengate in a stage version of THE BAD SEED. I’ve no doubt she could give Patty McCormack’s Rhonda Penmark a run for her money. Dengate’s talents reach far beyond being able to play a brat by circumstance, she’s also in possession of quite the voice. Never is her talent more evident than in Act 2’s telling and compelling “The Girl I Mean to Be”.
Speaking of compelling vocal performances, Towne Center’s THE SECRET GARDEN is indeed blossoming with them. Typical, for Music City, anyway, the show is cast with a veritable who’s who of exceptionally talented performers.
First and foremost there’s Katharine Boettcher as the aforementioned dead, but still very present Lily Craven. Just as I was late to the game on never having seen THE SECRET GARDEN, it was only recently that I ‘discovered’ my latest theatre crush in Boettcher when she cast a wicked spell on me and everyone who witnessed her performance as Ursula in Circle Players’ recent presentation of THE LITTLE MERMAID. From wicked to wonderful, Boettcher is indeed the embodiment of etherial bliss as Lily, most notably during Act 1’s “A Girl in the Valley” and Act 2’s touching “Come to My Garden”. A classically trained vocalist, Boettcher’s voice pays perfect homage to not only the period-appropriate operatic style, but the show’s literal and figurative hauntingly beautiful score.
Cast as Uncle Archibald is Kyle Pierce. If you’re a regular patron of Towne Centre, you might recognize his from previous appearances in both DAMN YANKEES and CRAZY FOR YOU. An incoming senior majoring in musical theatre at Samford University, Pierce performs the role of Archibald, and, in particular, his Act 1 solo, “A Bit of Earth”, with a maturity and insightfulness far beyond his years, and he does so with vocal skills that quickly make the audience forget he’s playing a character typically portrayed by actors nearly twice his age. When I spoke with him for my next Rapid Fire 20 Q, he revealed how he tapped into personal experiences to achieve such maturity on stage, but I’ll tease you with that in anticipation of the interview. His duet with Noah Clark as Archibald’s brother Dr. Neville Craven on “Lily’s Eyes” is another strong moment in the show, as it reveals another plot layer within the story. Clark’s Neville also gets his own moment to showcase his voice during Act 2’s telling “Disappear”.
Also on summer break, from New York University’s theatre program, no less, is Maya Riley as Martha, Mary’s attending maid. Local theaterati will no doubt recognize Riley, as she has grown up on the local stage. Always a joy to watch, Riley’s tone, control and stage presence add a lightness to the often somber storyline. Midway through Act 1’s Riley mesmerizes the audience with her savvy performance of the paradoxical “If I Had a Fine White Horse”.
Other performances of note run the gamut from seasoned performers like Brian Best (who takes on not one, but two roles in the show as both Captain Albert Lennox and groundskeeper, Ben Weatherstaff) to young stand-out Connor Richardson, who plays Dickon, brother to Martha, who befriends Mary and helps her unlock the secret garden that once belonged to her aunt. As Dickon and Mary, Richardson and Dengate are simply enchanting during “It’s a Maze”, “Winter’s on the Wing” and the cleverly inviting “Show Me the Key”, the latter of which should be of particular interest to fans of Burnett’s original novel, as it sweetly, melodically pays tribute to The Robin, the fine feathered friend of Dickon and Ben who, in Burnett’s story featured prominently, and was therefore likely responsible for at least part for captivating THE SECRET GARDEN’s initial young audience.
Lastly, special mention should be made of young Sam Holt as Colin Craven. Much like Dengate’s Mary, Holt’s Colin is at first caustic, by circumstance, but he’s got an undeniable charm that shines through and by show’s end, during the climactic scene in which…SPOILER ALERT….thanks to the love, friendship and encouragement of Mary and Dickon, Colin is able to miraculously walk, I dare say there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Yes, we all know it’s going to end Happily Ever After, but under Larson’s caring direction, and showcasing a cast of splendidly talented performers, Towne Centre’s THE SECRET GARDEN is a place audiences will be glad they visited. THE SECRET GARDEN continues its run through Saturday, August 26. Remaining shows are at 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, August 17-20 and Thursday-Saturday, August 24-26. Tickets range in price from $16 to $20. For more information, or to purchase tickets, CLICK HERE. Keep track of the latest happenings at Towne Centre via the company’s Facebook and Twitter.
If you’ve enjoyed this review of Towne Centre’s THE SECRET GARDEN, be sure and check back for my conversations with the show’s director and members of the cast. Want to keep up with the latest from Nashville Arts Critic? Subscribe to receive free email alerts when new items are published by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler.