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Green Thumbs Up for Lush 'Secret Garden'


VISTA — Roses and earth. Death and rebirth. It's hard to imagine a more enchanting setting than the bucolic Moonlight Amphitheatre for "The Secret Garden," the 1991 Broadway musical based on Francis Hodgson Burnett's 1911 tale about a child, Mary Lennox (Candice Nicole Safstrom), whose love for a garden helps her family to bloom after devastating loss.

Dickon (Ryan Lowe), Mary's gifted guide to the garden, first comes to light in a tree with a forked trunk that grows to the left of the stage in Brengle Terrace Park. And as Mary's seeds "grow," the grass seems to sway in approval under a starlit sky.

Orange County-based director and choreographer Ray Limon has assembled a remarkably fine cast for this dreamy and sensuous tale; they sing exquisitely, move gracefully and deliver the passion. Tears flowed, particularly when Mary's uncle, the grieving Archibald Craven (movingly played by Danny Michaels), has one last dance with Lily, the ghost of his beloved wife (ethereally sung by Carolyn Casey, reprising her role for Yorba Linda's recent Civic Light Opera production).

The remarkable, big-voiced Safstrom goes from petulant brat to compassionate young girl with a mastery far beyond her years as spoiled Mary, orphaned at 11 by a cholera epidemic in India, where her father served as captain in the British army.

Her uncle, a morose widower since the death of Mary's mother's sister, brings her to his big north Yorkshire estate, Misselthwaite Manor. But the house is full of gloom and mysterious cries in the night. Bit by bit, Mary's curiosity chips away at her self-absorption, and compassion, like a tender shoot, extends as she clears away the dead brush to bring her seemingly dead garden back to life.

In her quest to help the garden grow, she finds friends--Dickon (Lowe's sweet tenor and nimble charm make him seem part leprechaun), his sister Martha, the chambermaid (played with infectious good humor by Alexandra Auckland), a cousin, Colin (played with sweet, tentative frailty by Jordan Lamoureux)--and, ultimately, she finds herself.

The Secret Garden has a mystical element that people love or hate. Lily, while dead, is very much a presence, as are Mary's deceased parents, friends and Indian servants. The dead dance and sing the more operatic elements of Lucy Simon's rich score, the lyrics (penned feelingly, like the script, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman) punctuating dreams and the story like a Greek chorus.

This worked well in Limon's capable hands. More problematic is the role of Archibald's brother, Neville (handsomely sung by Christopher Sanders), whose two-faced relationship with his brother seems a contrived imitation of the Claudius/King Hamlet dynamic.

The sets--a lovely scrim and cutout of the mansion on the hill--and elegant costumes are imported, the former from the Music Theatre of Wichita, Kan., and the latter from Theatre Company in Upland. They all work well.

Elan McMahan provides satisfying musical direction. The only quibble one could have with this "Garden" is accents that slip-slide from Yorkshire to Irish brogue.

But it's a petty complaint, just one little weed that's not been pulled, barely worth a mention in the face of all this floral beauty.

* "The Secret Garden," Moonlight Amphitheatre, Brengle Terrace Park, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista. Wednesday-Sunday, 8 p.m. Ends Sunday. $12-$24. (760) 724-2110. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Carolyn Casey: Lily

Candice Nicole Safstrom: Mary Lennox

Danny Michaels: Archibald Craven

Christopher Sanders: Dr. Neville Craven

Cathy Gene Greenwood: Mrs. Medlock

Alexandra Auckland: Martha

Ryan Lowe: Dickon

Nils Anderson: Ben Weatherstaff

Jordan Lamoureux: Colin Craven

Liz Swensen: Mrs. Winthrop

A Moonlight Amphitheatre production of a musical by Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music), based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Directed and choreographed by Ray Limon. Musical direction by Elan McMahan. Technical direction by Charles Collum. Sets: Music Theatre of Wichita. Lights: Mark Sell. Costumes: Theatre Company, Upland. Sound: Peter Hashagen. Stage manager: Stanley D. Cohen.

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