The bottom line
Staged by Studio East in Kirkland through March 30, The Secret Garden is a musical adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel about an 11-year-old girl who is sent to live with her reclusive uncle in Yorkshire, England, after she is orphaned by a cholera epidemic in India. Highlights include well-executed musical numbers, fabulous singing and the Gothic feel of the performance, complete with ghosts. Older children will enjoy it, but it can be a bit long for younger kids (9- or 10-year-olds); prepare them by reading the novel together or talking about the time period before attending the show.
The play opens with a tragic scene of Mary’s life in India. While she is in her room with her Ayah (her Indian nanny), her parents are hosting a ball downstairs. The couples, all dressed in white and wearing white makeup, dance across the stage. One by one, they pull out bright red handkerchiefs then exit, symbolizing their death from a cholera outbreak. These characters return as ghosts throughout both acts. Mary, the only survivor, is then shipped off to live with her reclusive uncle in Yorkshire, England.
At her uncle’s estate she finds an unhappy household which includes her uncle, who is still grieving the death of his wife ten years earlier, and a sickly, invalid cousin, Colin. While wandering the grounds, she meets a local boy, with whom she finds a walled, locked garden.
Colin is attended by his uncle, a doctor who has an interest in Colin remaining sick. If Colin dies, the doctor will inherit the estate. As the cousins become friends, they work together to restore their mental and physical health as they find life in the neglected garden, which in turn threatens the doctor’s hopes of an inheritance.
Unlike the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, which focuses on the children's friendships, the musical adaptation focuses equally on the adult relationships. Mary’s parents and Colin’s mother, along with the Indian servants and military officers who died in India, appear as ghosts throughout the piece. The ghosts help tell the backstory and function as the chorus.
The set is clever, with rolling panels that are moved to become various scenes including a bedroom, the house, the garden walls and finally the secret garden in full bloom. The actors do a good job with the Yorkshire accent and dialect. Caleb Anderson plays Archibald (Mary’s uncle and Colin’s father) with a sadness and melancholy that is palpable. The musical numbers were well done and singing was fabulous.
Younger children will enjoy Mary’s spunk and defiance of the adults’ restrictions and teens will enjoy the Gothic feel of the ghost scenes.
“The singing was amazing!" - my 10-year-old daughter.
“It was a touching play about letting go of the past” - my 14-year-old daughter.
Parents should know
The age recommendation by the theater is nine and up. My 14-year-old and I enjoyed the show, but at two hours (with one 15-minute intermission) it was a bit too long for my 10-year-old. She needed help understanding who the ghosts were, and some of the concepts unique to the time period (early 1900s) in which the story is set (eg, the terms "cholera" or "hunchback").
If your kids haven’t read the book, I recommend sharing information about the time period or a review of the story before attending the show (without giving away the ending, of course!). You'll find a good synopsis of the musical here.
Tips: Candy, soda, water and coffee are available for sale in the lobby. Boosters for small children are available.