Review by Tamara Cacchione
Rhinebeck Theatre Society’s production of The Secret Garden hits all the right notes. Infusing heartache and optimism, the cast and crew take the audience through a rollercoaster of emotions in a short time thanks in no small part to beautiful blocking and strong stage and musical direction, transformative sets, and ethereal lighting and costumes.
A young girl is orphaned and sent to an old estate in the English countryside to live with her reclusive uncle. This estate is no ordinary place – the halls and gardens are inhabited by spirits. While everything seems hopeless when Mary Lenox first arrives, she meets a cast of rabble rousers who help her find hope and joy in a place which has suffered long from pain and loss. It likely does not require a spoiler alert to divulge here that Mary finds a secret garden. With her new friends, she works to bring back to life the long neglected sanctuary.
As a theater-goer, there is nothing more satisfying than an immersive experience; a respite that never tempts the audience to step outside of the production and analyze what might have been a stronger or more effective choice. As a sense experience, this production is so perfectly crafted and performed that the time flies and one is transported into the real and imagined worlds of Mary Lenox.
The production’s success in this regard owes much to a talented cast, full of strong voices and impeccable character choices, who show us great yet subtle transitions throughout the musical. When this production first came to Broadway, the young lady playing Mary Lenox (Daisy Eagen) won a Tony, becoming the youngest female to win in her category. The role requires an old soul in a young lady. In RTS’s production, the gifted Jane Langan perfectly embodies the spirit of a young girl who has seen great suffering but retains the indomitable spirit of youthful hope. She is flawless here; touching, and inspiring from beginning to end, showing us the growth and development of her character with each scene, as her character’s heart opened a bit more with each new blossom opening in her garden.
Joshuah Patriarco, as Mary Lenox’s anguished uncle Archibald, delivers a masterful performance. The character of Archibald can tempt an actor to fall into a one-note litany of brooding throughout the piece, but Patriarco instantly and deftly had the audience rooting for him, as he weaved in subtlety which render Archibald a complete character. The audience is drawn into Archibald’s poignant desire to escape the suffering he has endured after the loss of his wife Lily. As important as a strong Mary is for The Secret Garden, the show suffers without a compassionate, relatable, Archibald, and Patriarco’s skill is at once bold and nuanced.
Elizabeth Thomas, as Archibald’s late wife Lily and Mary Lenox’s aunt, is simply a delight to watch on stage. Her grace and voice perfectly encapsulated the celestial spirit of Lily that floats through the lives of the living. Thomas’ portrayal makes it easy to see why Archibald fell desperately in love with her. Their chemistry on stage was palpable and a delight to watch, leaving the audience cheering for their romance.
To that point, many characters in this play are no longer among the living – not an easy feat to portray seamlessly. Thanks to the talent and voices of the residents of Colonial India in 1906, the estate never seems as empty as it is. Keli Snyder as Rose Lenox (Mary’s mother) and Dennis Wakemen as Captain Albert Lennox (Mary’s father) are always present in Mary’s memories as we see flashbacks, or perhaps visits, from them throughout. The audience is invited to speculate as to whether they are real or imagined, and it is a testament to the direction that the line between the real and imagined seems, somehow, unimportant.
Director Dorothy Luongo and Assistant Director Wendy Urban-Mead have staged this production with space and room for joy and hope to emerge within the walls of the theater. Scenes and transitions move quickly as members of the cast might be singing or hauntingly dancing, such as Monika Gupta (Fakir) and Shreya Gupta (Ayah) jumping rope as they sing a child’s rhyme. Dan Foster as Lieutenant Wright and Doug Woolever as Major Holmes craft one of the most poignant moments in the play in relaying the only real revelation we get about Mary’s father. Lisa Delia and Geneva Turner, both graceful stage presences with rich voices, flesh out both the world of 1906 India and the hauntingly effective world Mary has created.
The transition from feeling deep sadnese for Mary’s many losses, to the joy and optimism of finding a new family, is vividly executed by the cast of Misselthwaite Manor. Katie-Beth Anspach is our first breath of fresh delight and she doesn’t stop thrilling until the final bow. Anspach’s Martha, as a maid in the Manor, is a gutsy tour-de-force that starts Mary on her journey outside of bedroom to which she has been relegated. Anspach’s strong clear voice delivers a rousing song in the second half (“Hold On”), when all hope seems lost, that is inspiring and thrilling. One finds it hard to take their eyes off of her, as she lives so realistically in her charming character; it is lovely to watch her choices she makes.
Equally charming is the captivating Josh Lococo as her merry brother Dickon. Lococo’s Dickon represents something magical in his rendition, which is clear from the first dulcet tones of his voice in “Winter’s on the Wing”.
David Foster achieves a wonderfully faulty doctor Neville Craven (Archibald’s sinister brother), who attempts to stop Mary from touching everything that she is helping to blossom. Foster dances between being completely malevolent and merely misguided, leaving the audience to make their own decision as to what his true intentions are.
Misselthwaite’s population is rounded out in exemplary fashion which help develop Mary Lenox’s new world. Sean Patrick Mahoney as young Colin Craven is funny, real, and a pleasure to watch. Joe Beem as gardener Ben Weatherstaff is superb – ably navigating his role in connecting the past to the future of the garden. Linda Roper as Mrs. Medlock expertly takes on the difficult task of creating a likeable and relatable character from a woman who just doesn’t seem to be able to give Mary the love and support she is searching for when she arrives. Rounding out the staff, Grace Foster as Betsy and Nicole Murphy as Jane add layers of life to the world.
Ann Davies brings her unique charm and talent to the story. As Mrs. Winthrop, the headmistress of prestigious boarding school pursuing Mary’s attendance, Davies flourishes as the shocked, prim and proper Winthrop, bringing humor and fun to the role.
Rounding out the cast is the talented children’s ensemble: Anshuman Chaudhary, Harriet Luongo, and Willa Wainwright. Their energy and precision add the haunting element for which the mystical piece cries out.
On a fundamental level this is a play about coping with grief, but it’s triumph is in the way it portrays the struggle to find hope in the darkest of times. The superb musical direction and orchestration by Paul and Joanne Schubert was a delight, with a live band to fully flesh out the enchanting melodies and vivacious songs. Scenic Designer/Artist Harley Putzer and Set Constructor/Lighting Designer Andy Weintraub created a massive and enchanting world, including a resplendent garden, flowers crawling up the wings and in the rafters. Watching the development of the garden, through mixed medias, allowed the audience to see the progression of the improvements to Misselthwaite and the secret garden hidden behind ivy-covered walls. Heidi Johnson, assisted by Lobsang Comacho, Jan Brooks, and Tory Elvin, created costumes from 1906 India and England, highlighting the intangible ghosts and helping both worlds come to life.
The Secret Garden is a moving piece, with beautiful music, strong acting, and dazzling and magnificent scenic design. The show runs Fri-Sun through July 14th at the CENTER for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck.