5th Ave Theatre’s “The Secret Garden”: Where happiness is only one door away

By Zita Lam

As much as The Secret Garden has been considered one of the best children’s novels of all time, the magic of the garden appeals to many adults by revealing characteristic of sour and bitterness observed in life. While mystery awaits the young to discover as the story goes on, there are tragic flaws hidden only for those whose hearts were once broken to recognize.

Based on the 1911 novel written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the story follows 10-year-old Mary’s path after her parent were poisoned in the British raj of India. She is sent to England under her solitary uncle’s custody, and immediately senses the spookiness of her new home. Little does she know, the house is filled with her uncle, Archibald Craven’s pain and grief of his late wife. The only place that she can escape all the horrors is in the mysterious walled garden; however, the excitement inside of the garden will be the greatest secret she will soon find out.

In this musical, award-winning playwright Marsha Norman put the character Mary Lennox under the spotlight. As Norman continues to embrace women’s power in her career, the strength of this young female character is something she chooses to highlight from the original story. She explained in the article “Marsha Norman: cultivator of a theatrical garden” which initially published by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, that it is her mission to tell the whole human story. She said, “If we don’t tell the story of what women and girls have accomplished, done, seen, said, brought about, missed out on, we are missing half of the stories of life on the planet.”

Mary (Bea Corley), who in the beginning appears to be a child with sharp words and an aggressive personality, transforms into a heartwarming string that ties every character together later on. Her ability to cope with tragedy makes a great contrast with Archibald (Tam Mutu), and with the help of Martha (Daisy Eagan), Dickon (Charlie Franklin), and Colin (Coleman Hunter), she finds that peace and happiness is only one door away.

The garden, as important as it was in the story, was a gateway for the author as well. Burnett’s life was no different than any characters she created in the novel: there are highs and lows. She achieved success early in age eventually making her America’s highest-paid woman writer and enjoyed fame and fortune most of her life. At the same time, she suffered from a broken heart: her 16-year-old son Lionel tragically died of tuberculosis in 1890. Burnett’s love for gardens and writing allowed her to get through the tragedies. She imprinted the reality of optimism as a philosophy into this children’s story.

But, how to ensure the re-structured storyline becomes a great musical for both kids and adults? Norman and composer Lucy Simon proved that it is possible by earning the 1991 Tony Award for Best Musical. 25 years later, director David Armstrong joined in and put on this stunning and magical show at The 5th Ave Theatre. The stage settings are fantastic and the extraordinary performance by the cast are the major factors of this production’s success. The casts’ acting and vocal techniques are so powerful that they reach your heart the moment they sing. After the end of a couple scenes on opening day, there were no other words said by the audiences but only “wow.”

The Secret Garden runs through May 6. For more information, visit https://www.5thavenue.org/.