Stoneham’s ‘The Secret Garden’ Brings Fond Memories to Life (4.5 Stars)

‘The Secret Garden’ Written by Frances Hodgson Burnett; Book and Lyrics by Marsha Norman; Music by Lucy Simon; Directed by Caitlin Lowans & Weylin Symes; Presented by Stoneham Theatre at 395 Main St. Stoneham, MA. Performances through June 8th.

I sat between two women of differing ages while watching this production of the classic young adult’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Both Carol (in her fifties) and Dorothea (in her eighties) had warm memories of how this story captured their hearts in their youth. For a while they both seemed to revert to the age when they first read the story, talking and giggling in anticipation of the show. They were excited to see the tale brought to life with music, dance and song, and neither was disappointed with the results.

Burnett’s story of ‘The Secret Garden’ was originally presented in serialized form in a 1910 magazine targeting adults, not children, yet as time went on young people (girls especially) discovered it when it was republished as a book, and its popularity grew steadily. The character of Mary Lennox was different from most children’s protagonists, as she was a spoiled, rude and disaffected orphan, the result of being raised in India by English parents who had little interest nor time for her. She is shipped off to England after her parent’s death from Cholera to her uncle’s home, Misselthwaite Manor. Eventually, she discovers a mysterious garden, and as the garden blooms and awakens, so do Mary and her cousin Colin (Dashiell Evett). The story is about challenging society’s accepted views head-on with common sense and courage.

I am tempted to say young Brigit Smith stole the show with her fine acting, singing and dance, but since she played Mary Lennox, the main character, and was so masterful in the role, she didn’t steal the show so much as she took the spotlight and just ran with it. It was an amazing performance from one so young (11 years old). Brigit, who is involved in the young company program at Stoneham Theatre, more than held her own with the other actors. Her singing, dancing and acting fit perfectly into this fine production and she gave a particularly charming interpretation of an Indian dance number. While she initially played Mary as the grumpy character of the book, her own sweetness came through and she captured the audience’s hearts.

There are plenty of talented local actors in this production and directors Caitlin Lowans and Weylin Symes seem to have brought out some of their best work. Or perhaps they all fed off each other’s professionalism. However it came to pass this is an impressive exhibition of talent on stage. A particularly powerful moment was the duet on “Lily’s Eyes” shared by classically-trained vocalist Rishi Basu (playing Dr. Neville Craven) and excellent local performer Kevin Cirone. Another memorable number was “A Bit of Earth” sung in the first act by Kevin Cirone as Mary’s troubled father Archibald and again in the second act by Lily (Jennifer Ellis), Rose (Alex Johnson) and Albert (Matthew Eamon Ryan). Tess Primack as Martha was a standout early in the show with her performance of “A Fine White Horse” and later in the second act singing “Hold On”.

The production values were high throughout the show, from sharp period costumes to smooth lighting transitions that helped transform the stage from gloomy old bedroom to bright sunny garden to ominous stormy night, all done smoothly and effectively. The only complaint voiced by more than one audience member was the sound. Whether it is the acoustics of the theater or just that the volume needed to be a bit higher, some of the lyrics and dialogue came off a bit muddy.

The show is a three-time Tony Award-winning musical with a moving and often breath-taking musical score written by Lucy Simon. It is certainly worthy of a Broadway show, making it all the more of a pleasant surprise to witness such solid performances right here in Stoneham, Ma. It’s easy to get to and reasonably priced. This is the 14th season for Stoneham Theatre and this show proves they are doing it right and still going strong. Taken altogether, this was a truly professional and nearly flawless performance. For more info, go to: