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REVIEW: The Secret Garden - Rose Center Theater, Westminster

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

"...A truly haunting show, quite literally, in all respects.

Directed with stylish flair and class, Rose Center Theater, Westminster, presents “The Secret Garden,” now in its final weekend, running from February 15th through March 3rd in magnificent splendor. Director/Music Director Tim Nelson has been Managing Executive Director of Rose Center Theater since 2006, and also serves as the Musical Theater Chair at Huntington Beach High School’s Academy for the Performing Arts. Choreographer Diane Makas, the Artistic Director/Dance Chair of HBHS’s esteemed APA program, and now in her 20th year at the helm of this magnet academy, also shepherd’s the choreography for the Rose Center’s productions.

The musical is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved children’s novel, first published in book form in 1911, which was originally contrived from the English nursery rhyme, "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary." Passively overlooked by the public then, “The Secret Garden” has risen steadily in prominence, and is now often noted as one of the best children's books of the twentieth century. In 1949, MGM even filmed a wonderful “Wizard of Oz”-like black and white version, starring Margaret O'Brien as Mary, Dean Stockwell as Colin and Brian Roper as Dickon, with the restored garden sequences filmed in Technicolor.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Playwright/lyricist Marsha Norman and composer Lucy Simon's 1991 Broadway version of “The Secret Garden,” however, blossoms anew with rich, operatic musical numbers that reach deep within your soul and thrills your senses. A truly haunting show, quite literally, in all respects. And Director Nelson, always up to the challenge, comes through in a marvelously impeccable presentation.

As this treasured and captivating story unfolds, we find the young Mary Lennox has just lost her parents to a cholera outbreak in colonial India, and she is sent to England to live with her Uncle, Archiebald Craven, widower of Mary's Aunt Lily, at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, an imposing, secluded manor on the British heath. Uncle Archie, however, is emotionally distant, still heartbroken over the loss of his wife, Lily, in a freak accident. He does not take to people well, avoiding them mainly due to a kyphosis deformity, which makes him very reserved and self-conscious of his condition. While exploring the Manor grounds, Mary discovers a secret garden located through a locked door on the property, overgrown and dying, and, finding the key, it becomes her secret place of solitude.

Becoming obsessed in restoring the lost garden and the beauty that once was, she is distracted by cries resounding through the house. Following the sounds, Mary discovers a hidden inhabitant in the manor, her cousin Colin, Mr. Craven's son - a sickly, spoiled, pampered child who is constantly confined to his bed by his doctor. Colin’s mother died shortly after he was born, and his father rejected him out of grief. As a result, Colin has not walked since, and believes he will become a hunchback as well and die while still young. He lives in a set of luxurious rooms in Misselthwaite Manor and, like his father, has only limited interactions with other people. Mary says he acts like an Indian Rajah, a boy prince, because he orders everyone around in an imperious way. She befriends him, and after much coaxing he joins her in the secret garden, where he undergoes his own personal journey of healing, with her support.

Mary also makes friends with several of the estate servants, but is met with resistance and disdain from her Uncle's calculating brother, Dr. Neville Craven, whose devotion to the care of her cousin Colin masks his darker intentions. Surrounded by spirits from the past, Mary begins to peel away the sadness that covers the garden and the broken pieces of a mourning and haunted house. Slowly the garden starts to revive and awaken, making way for love and happiness to grow again at Misselthwaite Manor.

Cat Sacksteder, a regular Rose Center thespian (“A Christmas Carol,” “ L’il Abner,” “Phantom”) is perfectly cast for the part of Mary, embodying the role of an ill-tempered, self-absorbed child at first. Forced to go outside in the garden to amuse herself, she becomes acquainted with Dickon, who helps her tend the plants so she can make the long-abandoned garden come alive again. As she does so, she begins a process that heals her physically, mentally, and spiritually, ultimately winning the hearts of her Uncle’s family, not to mention the audience.

Ms. Sacksteder’s repertoire of songs in the show are numerous, and as the main lead she has a significant impact in most of the scenes. A number of excellent, worthy selections, including the beautiful “I Heard Someone Crying,” “Show Me the Key,” “Round-Shouldered Man,” and “Letter Song,” showcase her amazing acting and vocal talents.

Though “The Secret Garden” is by and large Mary's story, much of the top acting and vocal honors in this production go to standout supporting cast, like Melissa Cook, Vincent Aniceto, Stephanie Bull, Tim Nelson, Alexis Karol, Trevin Stephenson, Chris Caputo and Taven Blanke.

Melissa Cook’s Lily is a vision as she steps out of her portrait to sing the lovely and familiar "Come to My Garden." With several RCT achievements to her credit (“Spamalot,” “Sweeney Todd,” “The King and I,” “Cabaret”), Ms. Cook brings undeniable talent and beauty to the stage as she embodies the role of Archibald’s former wife. She and Archie built the Secret Garden together, and it housed a tree that she liked to climb to read. When she was pregnant with Colin, the branch broke and she died of her injuries, even though Colin survived.

Her voice comes with the scent of "late roses" and with a sound "like a golden flute.” In other words, she's strongly associated with gardens, sweetness, and beauty. And her voice is also the only one that can get Archibald to break free of his morbid, brooding ways and actually go home to find his son. Ms. Cook personifies the part perfectly, gliding across the stage as if an apparition. Opening the show with “Opening Dream,” her influence, even in a state of suspension, is felt by Mary, Archie, and others as she lives in the shadows of the house, still overlooking and protecting her son. The most familiar numbers in the musical are sung by Lily.

The versatile Mr. Caputo makes us see past Archiebald’s despondent exterior and taps into his broken heart with subtle nuance. Executing the vocal demands of Ms. Simon's music (written for Mandy Patinkin) with skill and dexterity, the actor soars in his solos, "Race You to the Top of the Morning," "Where in the World," and especially "A Bit of Earth" in Act One, and is sensitively partners with Ms. Cook’s limpid and lovely Lily on "A Girl in the Valley," with her thrilling, resonant and echoing voice ringing in every corner of the theater. In "How Could I Ever Know?" one of the most familiar numbers in the show, and my personal favorite, they both deliver evocative performances that every audience member takes home.

Mr. Caputo also ignites the score's stunning showpiece male duet, "Lily's Eyes," opposite Vincent Aniceto’s finely wrought portrayal of Dr. Neville Craven. Mr. Aniceto’s depiction of the nervous, overly cautious doctor who will inherit Misselthwaite Manor if Colin dies before he does, made him the unwitting antihero in the show, and his deliverance in his solo in the second act, “Disappear,” was breathtaking.

Director Tim Nelson, also in a starring role in the show as Captain Albert Lennox, teams with Alexis Karol, Drama Director for Laguna Beach Middle and High School and a Rose Center stock player (“Man of La Mancha,” “The Sound of Music”), as his wife Rose, both victims of the cholera epidemic. Their ghostly visits are entrancing and graceful, acting in a way as narrators through song. Both are also sublime in their choruses and terpsichorean dancing, specifically, “A Girl in the Valley,” “A Bit of Earth,” and the “Quartet” in Act Two with Archibald, Neville, Lily and Rose.

Stephanie Bull as the feisty housemaid Martha along with the incomparable Trevin Stephenson as her intuitively wise, earthy brother, Dickon, draw the spotlight with energetic portrayals and jaunty Yorkshire accents. Ms. Bull is saucy yet sympathetic, imbuing her comic solo, "A Fine White Horse," with joy and delivering a knockout dramatic solo on "Hold On," while Mr. Stephenson is bodaciously cracking and superb, particularly in his rock-tinged solo, "Winter's on the Wing." His duet with Ms. Sacksteder in Act Two, “Wick,” was simply…genius!

Dickon may not be as central a figure in The Secret Garden as either Mary or Colin, but he's at the novel's emotional heart. Dickon is basically a mensch. There's really no other word for him. He's an all-around great person who loves his homeland on the moors and seems to have a natural gift for looking after all living things—be they people, plants, or animals.

Complemented by the wonderful Cliff Senior (a regular performer at Curtain Call Dinner Theater and steady player at Rose Center) as the patient world weary gardener, Ben, Mr. Senior joins the quartet with Mary, Dickon and Martha in “It’s a Maze.” A taciturn man who prefers the company of animals to people, Ben secretly tends the roses in Mrs. Craven's garden after she dies.

Eleven-year-old Traven Blanke, in the role of Colin, is beyond his years in talent and potential. With several productions under his belt already (“The Lion King,” “The Music Man”), he will be one to watch with his easy, natural style and voice. Two of his duets in the show are show-stoppers, harmonizing with Mary in “Round-Shouldered Man,” and again with Lily in the aforementioned stunner, “Come to My Garden.” And the formidable and ever mindful Sylvia Tomaselli-Nelson (“42nd Street,” “Murder on the High C’s”) as the dour housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, is a treat to watch.

Musically, The Secret Garden leans heavily on the late-20th-century style most prominently represented by Andrew Lloyd Weber, although the inferences in the novel imply the actual age is on the verge of the Edwardian era, having occurred during the great achievements of the Victorian era, and before World War I.

The Indian traditional number (“Come Spirit, Come Charm”), a spirited dance performed with striking elegance by Tawni Bridenball as Ayah (the servant in India who cared for Mary before dying of cholera), which also features Mary, Martha, Dickon, Lily and Company, provides welcomed diversity on an otherwise conventional score. Vocal execution, particularly from the ghost characters, are as exhilarating as it is foreboding, and is dramatically adroit throughout. The roles of the ghosts of Lily, Rose, and Albert along with other spirited cast members who met an early demise, likewise pose special, obvious challenges (they’re ghosts!), but those impressions are met dramatically head-on without heavy special effects in an assumptive posture with the audience by Director Nelson’s perceptive vision.

Sidebar: Deaths in India during the first three cholera pandemics (1817-1860) are estimated to have killed approximately 15 million people. The next three pandemics, from 1865-1923, killed another 23 million.

Lieutenant Peter Wright is played by Erik Duane, Lieutenant Ian Shaw is Billy Reed, alternating with Sean McCrimmon; Major Holmes is portrayed by Robert Amberg, and Claire Holmes, his wife, is the beautiful Mary Frances Conover. Alice is played by Kristin Henry, the role of Jane (as well as the Nurse) is Rylie Herbel, and Robbynn Green, performs well in an amusing cameo as Mary's prospective headmistress, Mrs. Winthrop. William is Chris Vournas, and Ms. Green and Mr. Vournas also double as the Dreamers. In other performances, Amanda Jean also plays the role of Martha.

In addition, Ensemble members include: Taylor Bannert, Susann Cellier, Erica Duane, Gloria Henderson, Rosella Juliano, Erin Lord-Nelson, Sharon Selig, and Kristin Yata. The Children’s Ensemble include Lilybelle Brown, Addison Chang, Zariah Merrill, Adrienne Morrow, Angelina Pendleton-Mendez, Maya Somers, Aly West, Emma Wilmot and Leila Woodward.

With Lighting and Set Design, also by Chris Caputo, a variety of back projections are used to indicate interiors, gardens, studies and ballrooms augmented with set pieces and props. Prop Design is by Trish Merrill and Diana Arroyo. Jenny Wentworth creates effective traditional period costumes. Stage Manager is Robbynn Green. Sound is by Stuart Selig and Karen Rymar.

A much inspiring show, with an obvious moral that happiness only comes by helping others. There are moments of sadness and loss, but there is constant hope throughout as a theme, even as the curtain opened.

This show is Very Highly Recommended!

“The Secret Garden,” playing February 15th through March 3rd, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm closes this weekend! Get your tickets now at and experience theatre like you’ve never before!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

Photo Credits to: Tori Pendell and Jeff Grapeape Newman


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