PROVO — It is interesting how a production company can find a new take on an old play or musical and make it feel new. At the new production of The Secret Garden at BYU Arts, I almost felt like I was watching the show for the first time, thanks to the simplicity employed by director Kris Peterson. She helped me see the material in a new way, and I highly recommend the experience.
The Secret Garden is a musical based on the beloved novel of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It first premiered on Broadway in 1991 and has music by Lucy Simon and lyrics and book by Marsha Norman. It tells a story that has remained relevant for over a century because it takes childhood seriously and has just the right amount of whimsy and heart.
While I have some critiques, the creators have successfully captured the most important elements of the novel with their musical. I particularly love everything they do with Lily. Not many Broadway leads are written for a classical soprano these days, and (as a soprano myself) it is why I was initially drawn to the piece. Songs like “Come to My Garden” and “How Could I Ever Know?” really let an actress shine, and, fortunately, Emma Wadsworth as Lily is up for the challenge. The Secret Garden also is notable for the strong duets in its score. “Lily’s Eyes,” performed beautifully by Noah Hurley as Archibald and Dan vanOrmer as Neville, and “How Could I Ever Know” with Lily and Archibald are both highlights of the evening.
However, the show is not without shortcomings. Its creators had a production in Los Angeles this year in anticipation of a Broadway revival. If they make revisions to the script and score, I hope that they recognize that The Secret Garden feels overstuffed, especially with its plethora of variations on the “isn’t it great to be outside” song, and it feels repetitive. There is “Wick,” “Race You to the Top of the Morning,” “Come Spirit, Come Charm,” “It’s a Maze,” and more. Basically anything sung by Dickon starts to sound the same pretty quickly (although performed well by Anson Bagley at BYU).
Nevertheless, the production at BYU was still exciting because of the interesting choices the creative team made. The thrust stage setup makes changing sets difficult, but scenic designer Milinda Weeks has used that to her advantage by creating a minimalist space that helps the audience fill in the gaps with their own imagination and create the lush garden that is the topic of the final song. I almost did not need the few fake flowers they brought in for those scenes because the more modern approach was working so well. For most of the show, the “garden” is shown with a silhouette-style tree with twinkle lights and a door, and it was a new and refreshing way to present this material. The costumes (designed by Priscilla Hao) were period appropriate, but — in keeping with the rest of the designs — on the simple side. For example, Mary only has two costume changes in the show, and she wears the oversized dress she’s given upon arrival for most of the musical.
Speaking of Mary, Emme Chaffin is strong, although she appears older than the typical Mary in productions of The Secret Garden. I especially liked Chaffin’s performance when she is belligerent and yelling at Colin or the headmistress. Even though The Secret Garden is not a silly piece, Chaffin brought some comedic timing to the role that helped the pacing not feel as laborious as it might otherwise have been.
The acting in general was strong throughout the whole cast, but particularly in their interactions with Mary. Wadsworth has the most challenging role because she is mostly seen in flashbacks and as an idealized version of a woman who Archibald is in love with. She has to do a lot to build connection with him through her longing looks and concerned expressions. I was definitely invested in her character as well as the other performances.
The entire cast BYU has assembled should be praised for their beautiful singing voices. There is honestly not a weak link in the group. Hurley has a classic tenor voice that blends nicely with vanOrmer, and Wadsworth. I found it fascinating that they chose to make Archibald’s hunch as subtle as possible. While Archibald walks with a cane, the extent of his disability is that he leans over a little bit on the cane. It was certainly more subtle than in most productions, which (like the simple sets) added to the overall storytelling of the production.
With its challenging songs and the demands on young performers The Secret Garden, is a daunting show to mount. However, The Secret Garden at BYU Arts full of awe and wonder. In fact, this production, by choosing a simple route to tell Mary’s story may be the greatest secret to the production’s success.