There is this sublime passage near the end of Cottage Theatre’s current production of The Secret Garden when Kyra Siegel, in the lead role of Mary Lennox, bows low to the stage and then rises in hypnotic fits and starts, as her character commences a healing dance for her invalid cousin Colin (George Schroeder); seeming possessed, Siegel’s lanky body jumps and arcs and shivers through space, and the complicated grace of her movements defies the mundane laws of gravity. It’s beautiful to behold. So beautiful, in fact, that I found myself tearing up. Theater is wonderful like that — heartbreakingly, humanly alive in ways movies can never be.
A sophisticated, versatile young actor, Siegel (who understudied Abigail Breslin in the role of Helen Keller during the 2010 Broadway run of The Miracle Worker) gives an expertly restrained performance as the 10-year-old orphan Mary who — returning abroad from colonial India, where her parents died during a cholera epidemic — is moved into the dark, mysterious “house upon the hill” of her reclusive Uncle Archibald (Kory Weimer). Even if every other aspect of The Secret Garden proved simply mediocre, or even a dud, Siegel’s presence would make this musical based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel a must-see. Because mediocre, in the wonderful world of local community theater, is often good enough. And that’s OK. What’s astonishing, though, is that Cottage Theatre’s production is top-notch all around, from the solid cast to the superlative vocal performance to the smooth but brisk direction of Peg Major.
To begin with, there’s the music. Now, call me a rube, but I find the actual music in most modern musicals to be rather unpretty and overworked, with the majority of numbers ranging in quality from aesthetically clunky to melodically miasmic. But the songs in The Secret Garden (book, lyrics by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon) are actually quite good, catchy even, with the added benefit of being mercifully brief. And, whether individually or as a booming whole, the cast sings beautifully and here a big nod should go out to the music team, including Jim Greenwood, Don Kelley and especially vocal director Mark Van Beever. Janet Whitlow’s set pieces are spare and tasteful while at the same time instilling a sense of wonder, and choreographers Pamela Lehan-Siegel and Mark Siegel utilize this space nicely. Everything works.
Really, there is hardly the space here to offer each actor the praise she or he truly deserves. Let it be said that, along with those already mentioned, each role is acquitted as though it couldn’t have been otherwise, meaning that, despite the fantastical elements of this “ghost” story, the entire cast interacts with a naturalism, a sense of fatefulness, that is emotionally authentic and completely engaging. Again, everything works.
Cottage Theatre has a real success on its hands. And, despite how it might look on paper, this is a show the whole family can enjoy. Yes, The Secret Garden deals with some heavy existential issues — loss, death, illness, dysfunction (for lack of a better term) and that particular mortal anxiety that can inflict children confronted with tragedy. But it treats these issues so deftly, and with such gentle (but hardly shallow) humanity, that the story achieves the transcendental quality of a fable. At the Sunday matinee I attended, 8-year-olds and octogenarians appeared to share the same sense of awe for what they were seeing on stage; I didn’t see any kids bolting for the door at the sight of the dead, and I sure heard a lot of soft sniffling by the conclusion of the last act. Considering that The Secret Garden ends on a happy, if slightly bittersweet, note, I took this as testament to this particular production’s power to move young and old alike.