Chicago Theater Review: THE SECRET GARDEN (Court)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 31, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Jennie Sophia, Tori WhaplesIt’s right that Court Theatre completes its 60th season with this redemptive tale–and it comes just as summer finally delivers its much-appreciated promissory note of life renewed. The Secret Garden depicts a seemingly endless winter that engulfs Archibald Craven, a Yorkshire widower who loses his wife and may soon lose his crippled son Colin. But providence hands him plucky Mary Lenox, a resilient niece whose parents succumbed to cholera in India. As long as the living need them, the dead freely visit their lost ones–a little too conveniently, and, in this production, too insistently as well. (Here loved ones “are not gone, just dead.”) Along with Dickon, a nature-savvy peasant lad, and a ready robin, these spiritual assistants help Mary to literally return to her roots. She will find her aunt’s secret garden, despite the claustrophobic urging of Colin’s almost fatally protective physician uncle Neville. Happily, a horticultural miracle crowns the happy ending.

Jennie Sophia, Rob LindleyDoggedly faithful to the sentiment and mysticism of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, the musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon gooses every emotional opportunity, memorably in dead Lily’s upbeat and oft-repeated anthem “Come To My Garden.” Unfortunately, John Culbert’s rather austere and abstract set is sepulchrally Edward Gorey-like and, worse, never quite suggests a garden gone to seed or in full flower. Children will find these suggestive more than illustrative depictions rather thin gruel, while a perfunctory dumping of pink petals at the end is not quite the arboreal awakening that this story deserves. But, despite a production that actually leaves too much to the imagination, director Charles Newell inspires well-crafted and fairly restrained performances from some willing leads and a flawless ensemble. In what could pass for a chamber staging of this fulsome work, these twelve players radiate tender loving care.

Tori Whaples (front) and the cast of The Secret Garden

Unlike the superb film versions from 1949, 1987 and 1993, inspired by the patiently plodding Edwardian novel, the musical sometimes seems a tad too intent on showing what they should tell. You feel less spontaneity in these forced discoveries and a tad too much unearned emotion in instant anthems like Neville’s equally-repeated “Lily’s Eyes.” But when the scenes earn their songs– as with “Wick,” Dickon’s ebullient hymn to hidden growth–the story strengthens before our eyes.

Jennie Sophia, Tori Whaples, Trent Noor

Lovely even when upset, Tori Whaples (alternating with Maya Hlava) moves proud Mary from pouty battiness to genuine gratitude, joyously coached by Aubrey McGrath’s gangly Dickon (resembling Tom Sawyer with a Yorkshire accent) and Trent Noor as the Little Lord Fauntleroy-like Colin. These strong young voices are destined to grace many more stages to come.

Elizabeth Ledo, Tori Whaples

Among the adults, Jennie Sophia haunts memorably as ectoplasmically active Lily. Rob Lindley carries his grief well as her winter-ridden husband, while Jeff Parker happily stops short of melodrama as the overly protective physician uncle.

Aubrey McGrath, Tori Whaples

Compared to past productions, where folk dancing enlivened the action, Katie Spelman’s choreography consists mostly of mysterious processions by the Dreamers (really, ghosts and memories) and occasionally simulations of Indian dance with a swirling avatar named Ayah (Alka Nayyar). Doug Peck’s musical direction scores well indeed as the five musicians make what they can out of a limited orchestral range.

Jeff Parker, Tori WhaplesNo question, the Court-iers give their all and some more. And they do it despite gloomy and monochromatic set pieces that defy the love of nature that pulses through this book as much as it surges in another contemporary work–Kenneth Grahame’s similarly pantheistic The Wind in the Willows. The other drawback: The ghosts feel intrusively present here, robbing the living of a certain independence in their efforts at self-reformation. But the transcendence of Burnett’s original inspiration–a paean to the power of second chances in life despite the loss–glows in most of these 130 minutes.

Tori Whaples, Elizabeth Ledophotos by Michael Brosilow

The Secret Garden
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue
closes June 21, 2015
for tickets, call 773.753.4472
or visit

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