The Secret Garden at Second Generation

Gardens traditionally symbolize renewal, new life, and growth. Tending to a garden is emotionally tied to nurturing, empathy, and change. All good things. Second Generation Theatre’s production of The Secret Garden Spring Edition, embraces the very best of these positive attributes in an elegant and lush production on stage now at the Shea’s Smith Theatre.

The Secret Garden – the book –  is a classic in the young adult literature canon, written by British born author Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1911. The source work is dark and dour sometimes, and frankly, as a young reader, it scared the bejeebers out of me. Think of Jane Eyre meets Wuthering Heights with a side of Rebecca written for girls. The moors are keening, the housekeeper is evil, the orphan is in a state, and the master is aloof in his sadness.  And there are secrets, plenty of secrets. Movies and made for TV versions were made through the years. In 1991, it was made into a Tony Award-winning musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, starring Mandy Patinkin and the late and luminous Rebecca Luker.

Second Generation is presenting the ‘spring’ version, shortened to 90 minutes in two acts for a family audience. It’s a little gem of a show. Michael Oliver Walline’s direction and choreography create and sustain a mood of hope over gloom in a way that elevates the core story to a dreamy, wondrous place.

The production is also a showcase for the next generation of Buffalo theatre, featuring two youth actors. Ella Hinklin is young Mary Lennox. Yes, she foot-stomps with spoiled brattiness and is petulant as all get out. But heck, her parents just died of cholera in India and she was shipped off to her uncle Archibald Craven’s (Louis Colaiacovo) manse on the moors. Her uncle’s brother Neville Craven (John Panepinto) is a creepy doctor and the head housekeeper (Anne DeFazio) isn’t exactly a warm hug. Who wouldn’t pitch a fit or two? Hinklin wraps herself in this role; when she announces to Martha the chambermaid (Amy Jakiel} that “you can dress me now” and shoots her arms into the air, the expressions on both their faces is priceless. As all good characters – and garden roses – do, she blossoms with extra attention and plenty of love from Martha and her brother Dickon (Joe Russi), Ben the gruff gardener (John Kreuzer), and her secret cousin Colin (Clark Garvey).

And then there’s the rest of the cast: ghosts of Lennox and Craven family members and the long neglected garden is a ghost, too. The ensemble is dressed in white and dancing – almost floating – on and off the stage, using the tiered stage and house to full advantage as they weave through this story. Mary’s parents (Bob Mazierski and Leah Berst) and her Aunt Lily (Kelly Copps) are among the no longer living and bring an eerie comfort to the story; they’re here to haunt with hope. The other key character in our story is the robin who sings to Dickon and the gardener and who guides Mary to the key that unlocks the over grown gate of the secret garden.  Maria Pedro is as expressive as a real bird as she flutters a faux feathered friend from her fingers. This was charming. Jenn Stafford – real life mother to Hinklin – steps out of the ensemble for a small moment as Mrs. Winthrop, head of girls school where young Mary is determined not to attend. She’s wonderfully haughty and uppity with a glimpse of the signature Stafford sass.

The show is full of beautifully powerful performances: when the two Craven brothers sing “Lily’s Eyes” about Archibald’s late wife (yup, Neville was crushin’ on his sister in law), it’s wistful and poignant. Copps as Lily is exquisite: her lilting soprano is lovely and her rendition of “How Could I Ever Know” is filled with love and longing. It’s Russi as Dickon who absolutely delights: remember his simpering and then his snarling performance as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret last season? His Dickon is sprightly yet strong in his conviction that the garden is “Wick,” (Yorkshire slang for alive).  He’s a charmer wrapped in an aura of quirky kindness. Jakiel as the chambermaid is endearing and her second act song “Hold On” is a powerful anthem to hope.

This company never disappoints. Walline’s production team – Allan Paglia, music director, Chris Cavanagh, lighting/sound/technical director, Jenna Damberger, costume design and their teams – built the infrastructure for an exceptional experience with this show. Every element supports Mary’s transformation from lonely, spoiled little girl to nurturing and caring young woman.

It’s no secret: The Secret Garden is a delight, from the music and staging to the evocative story of hope against melancholy. It’s a short run (to October 30) and its 90 minute (15 minutes for an intermission) make it just right for older kids to enjoy with their families. Find details at www.secondgenerationtheatre.com.

My one kvetch: the lack of a printed program. I get it…printing is expensive. Younger audiences don’t revel in turning real paper pages. But there are some of us who don’t love waiting until we get home to visit a website and I’m a rule follower so my phone is turned off before I cross the theatre threshold.