Broadway-worthy singing is the most compelling reason to catch the Rhinebeck Theatre Society’s new production of The Secret Garden, which runs through July 14 at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck. Under the direction of Dorothy Luongo, it’s a spirited, engaging production all around, but the voices shine especially brightly.
That’s important for this show, a musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved 1911 children’s novel, because the score by Lucy Simon is varied in style and technically challenging. A few of the songs incorporate deliberate dissonance in order to emphasize the darkness of Marsha Norman’s interpretation of the story. Remember, the playwright won her Pulitzer Prize with ‘Night, Mother, a drama that ends with the sound of a gunshot offstage as one of the two main characters commits suicide. While in this case, the original novel does start out with a cholera epidemic and feature a creepy old mansion, not one but two children who start out imperious and unlikable and some toxic parenting as well, it still has a sunnier tone overall than Norman’s bleak signature style. Nevertheless, the book for The Secret Garden won her both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award.
Admirers of the novel may be a little perplexed that Norman has introduced a large chorus of literal ghosts to voice the fears and regrets that only metaphorically haunt the characters on the printed page. They do a considerable amount of the singing, and the vocal parts for the ghost of the late mistress of Misselthwaite Manor, Lily Craven, require a well-nigh operatic range. This shouldn’t come as a great surprise if one considers that, while the composer of The Secret Garden is better-known as the younger sister and sometime singing partner of Carly Simon, there was also a third Simon Sister – Joanna, the eldest – who was quite a successful opera singer in the 1960s and ’70s. The artistic influences in that household were manifold and broad.
Elizabeth Thomas delivers a stunning vocal performance as Lily, whose death in childbirth led to her widower Archibald’s ban on anyone ever again entering the walled garden that was her favorite haunt in her lifetime. Joshuah Patriarco proves her vocal equal as Archibald Craven, the embittered lord of the manor who has just acquired the reluctant guardianship of a sour nine-year-old orphaned niece. The duets between the tormented, hunchbacked widower and the specter of his beloved young wife, “A Girl in the Valley” and “How Will I Ever Know,” are rendered with an intensity that’ll make your spine tingle, and the two actors have powerful stage chemistry together. To enhance the Gothic feel of the setting, Patriarco’s long hair is gelled to one side in a style that makes him resemble Johnny Depp in the movie version of Sweeney Todd, forcing us to notice the Sondheimesque reverberations in Simon’s score.
Conflicts among the adult characters in this story are front and center in this stage adaptation, including a much more substantial and villainous role for Dr. Craven – a distant cousin in the book, but Archibald’s brother Neville (David Foster) here. In being depicted as having been in love with Lily himself, presumably to add dramatic conflict, he’s saddled with a motive that feels a little clunky and arbitrary but allows for a terrific duet with Archibald, “Lily’s Eyes.”
The book mainly focuses on the triad of children drawn to the garden and its mysterious healing powers. In this production, young Jane Langan is astonishingly good, both in her pipes and her line delivery, as the story’s protagonist: Mary Lennox, the jaundiced orphan, newly arrived from India, who pretty much hates everything until she falls in with a spritelike Yorkshire lad named Dickon Sowerby. (Book Mary, it should be noted, is much surlier for much longer.) SUNY-New Paltz student Josh Lococo sings extremely well as Dickon.
An acting novice of small and slender stature, Sean Patrick Mahoney, is well-cast as the third child, Colin Craven, Mary’s sickly cousin who also direly needs some garden therapy. Archibald’s lullaby to the son he fears will grow up hunchbacked like himself, “Race You to the Top of the Morning,” is another of the show’s more heart-tugging moments.
The sets for The Secret Garden are ingeniously rendered modules that can be quickly rotated and reassembled into a bedroom, drawing room, the garden wall or its interior. My sole complaint is that the door to the garden, supposedly well-hidden behind thick curtains of ivy, is in plain view from the get-go. Other minor disappointments overall include Norman’s excision of one of the most charming book characters, Dickon’s mother, who I suspect may have been the inspiration for Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter saga.
On the whole, this is a very worthy, entertaining, high-quality production. I especially look forward to seeing more of Jane Langan as she grows up onstage. She has already played the lead in Matilda at the Center, and I expect that this most talented girl will continue to be a regular here.
Performances of The Secret Garden begin at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with a 3 p.m. Sunday matinée. Tickets cost $27. To reserve your seat, call the box office at (845) 876-3080 or visit www.centerforperformingarts.org. The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck is located at 661 Route 308, 3.5 miles east of downtown Rhinebeck.