SOUTH SALT LAKE — “Hope you’re ready to cry,” the box office lady said as she handed us our tickets. She was right. The Secret Garden at the Utah Children’s Theatre packs an emotional punch. The classic story by Frances Hodgson Burnett was adapted for the stage by Joanne M. Parker, and the titular garden is a beautiful metaphor for the hearts of several characters who undergo a change for good. At the center is Mary Lennox (played by Alina Smith), who goes from being a spoiled brat who slaps servants to a friend of the weak (namely her neglected cousin Collin) and a transformational force that reconciles her dysfunctional extended family.
This was a well-acted production from top to bottom, and several actors were perfect for their roles. I can’t imagine a better Dicken and Collin than Themi Kambouris and Zack Allred. Allred was appropriately brutish and pathetic as the gaunt, bedridden Collin before the garden works its magic on him. Kambouris was magnetic as Dicken, and brought a youthful excitement to the stage. Bryson Dumas was also wonderful as weathered Scottish landscaper Ben Weatherstaff whose presence was often a welcome respite from familial drama.
Like in Mary Poppins, the primary person saved in the story though is the aloof and lost father, Archibald Craven, who shut up the garden years ago after the death of his wife. Christopher Taylor perfectly embodied the show’s most complicated character. The real tearjerker here, however, was the playwright’s decision to include the spirit of his deceased wife Lily (played by a practically glowing Missy Stebbing) in the garden scenes, where she smiles approvingly at the children’s renewal of the space she loved.
On the flipside, Emily Holmgren was an adversarial force as dictatorial housekeeper Mrs. Medlock. Considering that she has to deal with the insufferable Collin day and night, some briskness could be warranted. However, she seemed to border on Nurse Ratched territory, and I think given the young audience, this production could benefit from a softening of her character, especially toward the end.
Rounding out the cast, Alex Gunn deserves credit for lightening things up as the slightly clueless and very British butler Mr. Pitcher, and earned a fair share of chuckles (“I think he’s my favorite,” one audience member noted). And Bountiful Junior High student Grace Holmgren was warm, winning and extremely likeable as the kindhearted maid Martha.
Smith is a strong actress who does an excellent job portraying the spoiled Mary. I did wish that she had warmed up a bit more as the show progressed—after all, it’s Mary’s good deeds in caring for Collin and the garden that make her the heroine, and she was transformed for good as well. Softening tone and varying line delivery could help this. That said, the actors at the Children’s Theatre aren’t miked which could make projecting a gentler voice challenging for a young actor. Overall however, the young actors were great at projection, diction, and remembering lines. The quality of the training at Utah Children’s Theatre is apparent in its young actors.
Director Meighan Smith masterfully helmed the show with an innovative set design (by James B. Parker), excellent movement and unexpected touches that kept things lively. This was especially notable in the way legions of servants bustled down the twin walkways above the audience to introduce the posh, intense Craven household. The imaginative set also utilized six platforms that could be pushed in and out from backstage, completely eliminating the need for scene changes. Who wants to pause a show so people in black clothes can move things around anyway?
I was surprised by how intense and heavy this production was. Make no mistake, this is a drama, not a musical or dramedy. Story elements like the Lennox family’s death by cholera, bullying, and cruel treatment of and by caregivers were displayed powerfully, and the creepy scenes of Collin’s wailing seemed uniquely suited for Halloween time. Most of the show involves interpersonal conflict (“She’s being mean!” a child behind me exclaimed during one of Mrs. Medlock’s diatribes), although I expect younger tots will mostly remember Dickens’ cute, live animals when all is said and done (“Is that a real rabbit?” one child exclaimed). I’d recommend parents bring their more mature children to this show, and talk with them about the story’s messages and characters beforehand.
When I tell people I reviewed a show at the Utah Children’s Theatre, they often ask if all the actors are children. Not only are the actors age appropriate (yes, adults portray adults), the theater consistently stages some of the best productions in the state. While its dark tone may make it less than ideal for some sensitive little ones, audience members looking for a good cry or an all-age drama would be hard pressed to find something better on stage in Utah right now.