Theatre Calgary’s The Secret Garden blooms with its extraordinary cast and staging

You should know up front that I love musical theatre. If an actor bursts into song while making a boot, selling a newspaper, or summoning revolutionaries for the Paris Uprising, I’m yours. If this strikes you as silly, you’d best move along and click somewhere else.

So I’ve been looking forward to The Secret Garden at Theatre Calgary — the final show of the season, and the first show at TC directed by artistic director Stafford Arima. I was a fan of the book as a child, but it had been a good many years since I had read it, and I was more than ready for an update. This version played on Broadway in 1991, so it isn’t new either, but it’s quite a bit more modern than the 1911 novel. And it’s more of a grown-up story than the novel was, although it maintains enough of the magic of the original to be intriguing for the younger set as well.

The action revolves around 10-year-old Mary Lennox (grade eight student Greer Hunt), a “sour young thing” who is raised in India until her parents die of cholera, and she is shipped to Misselthwaite Manor in North Yorkshire to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven (Eric Craig). Archie’s wife Lily (Laura Brandt) has died as well, and he is paralyzed with grief. Mary is brought out of her shell by a chamber maid named Martha (Ma-Anne Dionisio) and her brother Dickon (Eric Wigston), and eventually discovers that she has an invalid cousin (Colin, played by eight-year-old Lucian-River Mirage Chauhan) as well. They discover the secret garden of the title, which belonged to the late Lily, and Mary proceeds to bring the garden and the rest of the manor back to life.

The book and lyrics by Marsha Norman are dark and sometimes ominous, and the music by Lucy Simon is frequently irregular and discordant to match the tone of the text. The manor is haunted by the ghosts of those both Mary and Archie have lost, and they appear nightly, sometimes acting as a kind of Greek chorus and sometimes tormenting Mary and Archie with events of the past. Archie relives his courtship with Lily in their duet A Girl in the Valley, and Mary recalls the night her parents died accompanied by the eerily recurring theme, “Mistress Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” in several songs in Act One.

Arima’s staging is delightfully dark and twisty, and the design by Cory Sincennes is striking. Rather than the complicated, opulent set that the script suggests, they set the action against an imposing but simple wall that represents the entirety of the grim manor. Using a few iconic visual elements, the space transforms from Mary’s bedroom to a ballroom to Archie’s library to the titular garden. While some stagings of The Secret Garden have attempted to recreate the evolving splendour of the garden itself, Arima and Sincennes leave this element almost entirely to the audience’s imagination, which is of course more impressive — and more individual — than any design could achieve.

Soprano Laura Brandt is a vocal powerhouse, and her classical training is evident. Her style is perfect for the ethereal and idealized Lily, and although the power and resonance of her voice are hard to match with a more contemporary style, Eric Craig is up to the task as Archie. They blend surprisingly well in the duets, yet the contrast seems to highlight the fact that Lily lives on only in Archie’s imagination, while his family are trying to draw him back to real life.

Hunt and Chauhan bring the young Mary and Colin to life with poise well beyond their years. Their performances are authentic and engaging, and both will be names that we will no doubt see on local stages again. I could have mentioned dialect coach Jane Macfarlane in a review of almost any local show this season, but her talents are perhaps best evident here, where the youngest members of the cast deliver dense Yorkshire dialogue in speech and song with clarity, precision and consistency.

The large cast is vocally well-balanced, and there are no weak links. A highlight is Eric Wigston, who is brilliantly cast as the playful, mischievous Dickon, who teaches Mary to speak to birds. His charm and rich voice are irresistible, and I for one will be very disappointed if I don’t see him again in a major role next season.

(Photo courtesy Trudie Lee.)

The Secret Garden runs in the Max Bell Theatre until May 19. For tickets and show times please click here.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.