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'Secret Garden' blossoms in UA production
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Arizona Repertory Theatre

'Secret Garden' blossoms in UA production

An enjoyable, expansive show, with 21 cast members and 10-piece orchestra

  • Mary (Erin Asselta) and Dickon (Michael Schauble) prepare to work on The Secret Garden.
    Patrick McArdleMary (Erin Asselta) and Dickon (Michael Schauble) prepare to work on The Secret Garden.

Approaching the holiday season, we should be aware of the dangers of acute cuteness, when, like an overdose of treacle in an ill-equipped lifestyle, twee kiddie culture overwhelms our adult sensibilities.

A November production of “The Secret Garden,” the century-old children’s tale starring an orphan, her crippled cousin and Dickensian adults, compounded as a musical, could be overwhelming. Fortunately, this University of Arizona presentation is more a showcase for the program’s up-and-coming talent with nary a hint of the upcoming Christmas onslaught.

“The Secret Garden” is the more resilient of author Frances Hodgson Burnett’s writings – she also wrote “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” a cultural touchstone of the late 19th Century. “The Secret Garden,” published in 1910, tells the delightful tale of a young English girl, Mary, orphaned by a cholera epidemic in India.

She is sent to live with her pathetically emo Uncle Archibald in his big house on the Yorkshire moors. Long story short, there she uncovers and revitalizes her dead aunt’s garden, learning lessons in leadership and self-reliance, as well as curing the blues of all around her.

The musical version of “The Secret Garden” appeared on Broadway in 1991. Marsha Norman, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her drama, “’night, Mother,” wrote the book and lyrics, taking home a Tony for “Best Book of a Musical.” Lucy Simon, older sister of Carly, wrote the music, also earning a Tony nomination.

The obvious symbolism of the garden as a metaphor for life and healing in Burnett’s pre-Jungian novel achieves a near mythopoetic level in the musical, through single-minded unity of effort.

Here, ghosts inhabit the house, including dead Aunt Lily, to point out the way. Exotic memories of life in India abound, enriching the background. Mary undertakes a natural regimen of fresh air and exercise for her bed-ridden cousin, Colin, sure to either cure or kill him. The fact that Norman worked with disabled children early in her career, while Simon’s husband is a psychoanalyst, no doubt helped hone the musical’s crisp focus.

The UA presentation, directed by assistant professor of Musical Theatre Rob Gretta, is not children’s theatre. Given its long run time, nearly 2 ½ hours with intermission, its preoccupation with death and dying, and its refusal to be very child-like, the play is not appropriate for very young audiences

Indulge your inner child now because soon your performance art choices will be 'A Christmas Carol,' the 'Nutcracker' and Handel’s 'Messiah.'

Gretta, who debuted last year at UA with an outstanding production of “Into the Woods,” works much of the same mature magic here. If this effort is just a notch below that memorable work, it may be because: a) these are new students; b) the songs are less familiar or memorable; or c) it’s simply tough to top Sondheim. Gretta’s staging is adroitly accented by elegant choreography from senior Dance major Shaun Repetto in his ART debut.

Graduating senior Erin Asselia is note-perfect both vocally and physically as Mary. She is an arresting energetic presence throughout and brings subtly and nuance to her character’s arc from abandonment to acting out to self-determination.

Here the dearly departed can be recognized because their vocals get lots of reverb. Erica Renee Smith, a junior in her ART debut, gives a commanding performance as deceased Aunt Lily, a ghost who provides an ethereal, wordless melisma and several nice duets. Her fairy godmother bearing stood out even among the large and vocally assured cast.

Michael Schauble, as nature boy Dickon, one of Mary’s co-conspirators to revive the garden and Colin, also steals the show during his scenes with his powerful and enchanting presence.

Ironically, another scene stealer is the scenery itself. Four self-propelled dancing topiaries add a sense of magic and delight to both the sets and choreography. Associate professor Clare P. Rowe creates a set that integrated and minimized the numerous scene changes while offering depth and texture.

Zachary Karon is extraordinarily annoying as whiny bed-ridden Colin (that’s good). His tone is less robust when the vocal range forced him to get in touch with his inner soprano (less good, but not bad). Frank Camp gives a strong showing as Archibald’s brother, Neville. This is emphasized in their duet, “Lily’s Eyes,” elaborately staged on dual staircases as an important plot point is made. Patrick Spencer emoted well as Uncle Archibald, but also lost tone when forced to falsetto. More problematic was inconsistency with his character’s physical infirmity, since that infirmity is also an important plot point.

A minor but surprising inconsistency also occurred with accents. Some of the secondary characters slipped a hint of southern drawl in their Yorkshire, despite the efforts of Professor Dianne J. Winslow, one of the best dialect coaches in the country.

“The Secret Garden” is an enjoyable, expansive show, with 21 cast members (not counting topiaries) and a ten-piece orchestra. It is well executed with lots of subtle grace notes (the correspondence between Archibald’s cane and Dickon’s staff; the split stage appearance of apparitions) and many excellent performances of national touring company caliber.

If the outcome is obvious early on, it is nonetheless never preachy or oversweet. Indulge your inner child now because soon your performance art choices will be “A Christmas Carol,” the “Nutcracker Ballet” and Handel’s “Messiah.”

Video

If you go

  • “The Secret Garden,” presented by Arizona Repertory Theatre in the UA’s Marroney Theatre, 1025 N. Olive Avenue, through Dec. 4.
  • Performances are Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 12, 17-19 and Dec. 2-3 at 7:30 pm, with matinees Nov 13, 19-20, Dec. 4 at 1:30 pm.
  • Reserved seats are $31; military, senior citizens and UA employee $29; students $21. Tickets available at the UA Fine Arts Box Office, 621-1162 and www.arizona.tix.com

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