When The Secret Garden first premiered in London, critics called it both ‘slight’, and ‘schmaltzy’. Marsha Norman’s often obtuse book and trite lyrics came in for some drubbing, and while some appreciated the yearning beauty of Simon’s score others labelled it ‘forgettable’.
Aria Entertainment & Knockhardy Productions have wisely placed the emphasis on the music in this ‘concert performance’. This must surely be the most sublime singing heard in a fringe theatre thus far this year.
With nary a weak link in the vocal quality of the cast this is a sensitively orchestrated production that showcases some flawless vocal performances, most notably from Zoe Curlett and Alexander Evans as Lily and Archibald Craven who lead the company with brio and style. When the full vocal compliment of 18 lift their voices together, the effect is undeniably breathtaking. The two juvenile leads, Ana Martin as Mary Lennox, and Zac Donovan as Colin Craven more than equitably hold their own.
If this were staged as a concert, it would have been a virtuoso performance, but with this calibre of cast the temptation to stage this half-forgotten piece must have been immense. Giving in to this temptation however has created a sort of hybrid that is never quite certain what it is.
As a concert this is an unmissable, first class presentation of a musical that deservedly needs re-visiting
The semi-staging only serves to highlight the flaws in the piece. Norman’s occasionally gauche book and lyrics are not given cogency by the production which is hampered by space, and financial restraints. The production lacks lucidity, both visually and dramatically. The set design overwhelms rather than suggests the magical garden, and at times it is difficult to discern the precise dramatic relationships between the characters.
Nonetheless, David Keefe conducts a four piece orchestra with supreme sensitivity and his orchestrations breathe new life into the piece. As a concert this is an unmissable, first class presentation of a musical that deservedly needs re-visiting. But as a performance, it fails to address the criticisms originally levied at the piece.
*** (3 stars)
Runs until 17th March