Plano — Emotional abuse, a deadly epidemic, pre-adolescent post-traumatic stress, classism, and a heavy dose of mystical environmentalism come together in composer Lucy Simon and playwright Marsha Norman’s 1991 Broadway hit The Secret Garden, now playing in an ambitious production at Brick Road Theatre in Plano.
Is it a children’s show raising grown-up issues, or a grown-up show with a kid-friendly, happily-ever-after ending? While generally faithful to the early-20-century novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett on which it is based, The Secret Garden is a sometimes-uncomfortable amalgamation of Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and Little Women. The Secret Garden ultimately depends on the vewers’ willingness to accept the concept that, with the help of magic and a little gumption, all problems can be solved.
That said, and allowing that the audience for The Secret Garden, whether adult or juvenile, remains large, Brick Road Theatre’s production has much to commend it, including the intimacy of the venue, a 321-seat shoebox facility with proscenium. Placing The Secret Garden in a room with a capacity equal to one-fifth of the show’s original Broadway venue of the St. James Theatre (and much smaller than the 2,000-plus seat auditoriums touring Broadway productions generally play in) gives the show striking immediacy, and opportunity for dramatic subtlety of which this cast takes full advantage.
The two child actors at the center of the drama are called upon to transform from spoiled, isolated brats into mature, generous, and self-aware individuals. Piper Cunningham as Mary and Patrick Shukis as Colin are both appealing and convincing in these complex roles. Scot Nixon likewise portrays the transformation of the bitter, conflicted Archibald (uncle to Mary and father to Colin) into loving parent, while Corey Whaley successfully takes on the role of Neville, the evil uncle who appears to all the characters as caring and self-sacrificing.
Daron Cockerell as the feisty maid Martha and Corbin Born as her intuitively wise brother Dickon draw the spotlight with energetic portrayals and jaunty Yorkshire accents, complemented by Gregg Loso as the patient gardener and Ivy Odyke as the dour housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock. The roles of the ghosts of Lily, Rose, and Albert likewise pose special, obvious challenges, and are met vocally and dramatically by Elisa Danielle James, Mindy Bell, and Jonathan Speegle, respectively.
Musically, The Secret Garden leans heavily on the predominant late-20th-century style most prominently represented by Andrew Lloyd Weber; bits in the style of British folksong and Indian traditional music (the latter sung with striking panache by Vinnie Mahal as the Fakir) provide welcome high points on this otherwise conventional score. Vocal production, particularly from the ghost characters, is strong throughout. Over-reliance on synthesized sound, a common practice these days in productions of musicals, occasionally gives an ugly overlay to the score, and the amplification varied from actor to actor, with the male voices often over-amplified.
Amy Poe’s minimal scenery, featuring a sort of reverse silhouette suggesting both India and an English country manor, is simple and perfect for an intimate production; Hope Cox creates effective traditional period costumes. Director Tyler Jeffrey Adams creates an unfailingly energetic flow onstage, impressively solving the issues of flashbacks, ghosts, and representation of massive death in a cholera epidemic in India. The one miscalculation in staging arrives in a waltz sequence early on, awkwardly featuring actors in choreography that clearly pushes the limits of their abilities.
In taking on The Secret Garden, Brick Road Theatre tests the limits of its resources. While some issues arise, the company once again proves its ability to produce standard pieces from the musical theater repertoire meaningfully and appealingly.