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.