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Review: More than just kids likely to dig 'Secret Garden'

By Karen D'Souza
Bee Theater Critic
(Published Aug. 4, 1999)

A sea of ghostly figures in white floats across the stage in the opening moments of "The Secret Garden."

Graceful and serene, their movements are suffused with the air of timelessness. It's as if the dance could go on forever. But like life, this ritual is as fragile as it is beautiful. Suddenly, the dancers freeze in their places, scarlet sashes twined around their necks.

The silken red ribbons symbolize disease, the force that robs little Mary Lennox of her parents; she is the heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett's fable. And even though younger theatergoers may not fully comprehend this dreamlike rhapsody on death, loss and rebirth, it will surely move them.

"The Secret Garden" touches on all children's worst fear -- losing their parents and finding themselves alone in the world. By turns haunting and poetic, this enchanting production goes far beyond the boundaries of children's theater. Directed by Glenn Casale, it runs through Sunday.

The soul of this operatic musical is the ephemeral nature of love, relationships and life itself. Mary Lennox awakes one morning to learn she has become an orphan overnight. To hide the pain she feels, she cloaks herself in stubbornness. She stamps her feet prettily. She sulks.

Caitlyn Caughell epitomizes brattiness as Mary. With a permanent smirk on her face and a glint in her eye, Caughell sings her heart out. Although she occasionally loses clarity of speech to emotion, she certainly holds her own onstage.

The Secret Garden

4 stars

Continues through Sunday under the Music Circus tent at 1419 H St. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. $23-$40 (children under 12 are admitted for half-price). Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (one intermission). (916) 557-1999.

That's no small feat, considering she shares the spotlight with Robert Cuccioli (as Mary's tortured Uncle Archibald). Cuccioli, who was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in Broadway's "Jekyll & Hyde," steals nearly every scene with his intense, smoldering turn as a man tormented by the past.

It is to Archibald's creepy old estate on the moors that Mary is sent after her parents die of cholera in India. Creaking floors and cobwebs fill every inch of Misselthwaite Manor. None of the gloom disturbs Archibald, who has sequestered himself since the loss of his wife, Lily.

Sometimes he even sees her ghost (the luminous Teri Bibb) gliding along the gardens and ballrooms of the old house. When Mary comes to stay, she brings her own guardian spirits along with her.

In "I Heard Someone Crying," Mary, Archibald and Lily wander the house by candlelight as the ghosts guide their way. This stirring song hints at the mystery and romance to come.

As Mary settles in and Archibald pointedly ignores her (she reminds him of Lily), Mary turns to the outdoors. She spends her days roaming the estate armed with a jumping rope and a smart mouth. In time she befriends the chambermaid, Martha (Leah Hocking); her spritely brother, Dickon (Alec Timerman reprising his Broadway role); and Colin (Josh Breslow), a small boy kept behind closed doors.

Together, the playmates stumble upon the house's secret garden. In this small patch of green, hidden behind stone walls, lies the key to Archibald's grief and Mary's future.

As the plot thickens, Lucy Simons' lush score soars and crescendos. If the tent had a roof, Hocking would have raised it with her sweeping rendition of the optimistic anthem "Hold On."

Marsha Norman, who adapted the novel for the stage, leavens the piece with humor, insight and sweetness without veering into treacle. For his part, Casale has assembled a cast of top-notch singers and actors who throw themselves into the action without reserve. Their unstinting conviction (despite a few microphone glitches) heightens the suspense and wonder, tragedy and wit. Even the smallest flourishes are executed with flair.

At one point, the specters of Mary's Indian nannies chase an evil schoolmistress out of the house. The ghosts do not vanish, however, until Mary has breathed life into the forgotten garden, and love once again blossoms in its walls. Ah, happy endings.

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