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Beautifully Cultivated

Able cast meets challenges of 'Secret Garden's' dark story, reaping rewards.

March 29, 2001|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ostensibly written with children in mind, "The Secret Garden" opens with the death of a large household in a cholera epidemic. If that doesn't traumatize your kids, there's a flock of ghosts who accompany young Mary, the one survivor, from India to England, where she's set to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven.

And if that still isn't enough, Uncle Archibald has been seriously depressed since the death of his wife, Lily, during the birth of their son, Colin, now 10, who has been bedridden all his life. Archibald's well-meaning physician brother, Neville, is unable to diagnose Colin's illness, and his treatment seems ill-advised. Not surprisingly, Misselthwaite Manor has gone somewhat to seed, not least the gated and locked "secret garden" that had been Lily's special project.

Come to think of it, the 1991 musical adaptation of the popular 1910 English novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett could these days be considered almost "Goth" enough for the Marilyn Manson crowd. It's now playing at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, in a lovely production under the auspices of the Cabrillo Music Theatre.

This isn't "Oklahoma!" The script, by Marsha Norman (Pulitzer Prize winner for " 'Night, Mother") is dense and often gloomy, and the songs, by opera singer Lucy Simon, range from numbers that are almost arias to a simulated nursery rhyme.

Are you or your children ready for this? Probably, with a little preparation. Because despite all the darkness, the rewards are great. In symbolism as thick as the foliage, little Mary illuminates the dark corners of Misselthwaite Manor, bringing a renewed vigor to the plants and occupants--if not the ghosts, who mainly stand around dressed in white and occasionally sing.

Members of the cast rise to the challenges. Dennis St. Pierre as the sulking Archibald and Bruce Winant as his brother, the doctor, have a soul-stirring duet in "Lily's Eyes." Will Shupe has some good moments as Ben, the gardener, and Michael Christe is effective as the mysterious Dickon. Rosemary DeLeonardis and Sarah Ramsey-Duke portray members of the Manor housekeeping staff, and Judi Domroy is both comic and threatening as headmistress of a school where Neville is trying to send the reluctant Mary. And Sydney Dever is most impressive as 10-year-old Mary, a role so demanding that Daisy Egan, who created the role on Broadway, became the youngest actress (to that point, at last) ever to win a Tony.

Among the singing dead, Karen Hogle plays Mary's mother, Rose, with Steven Robert Ross as Rose's husband, Captain Albert Lennox.

Lewis Wilkenfeld directed the production, with choreography by Roger Castellano and musical direction by conductor Ilana Eden.

DETAILS

"The Secret Garden" continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza auditorium, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. Tickets are $16 to $34 evenings; $14 to $28 matinees, and are available at the Civic Arts Plaza box office, at Ticketmaster outlets or by telephone at 583-8700. For groups of 12 or more, call Debbie Pizzano at 522-8010; for any other box office information, call 449-2727.

*

Bernard Slade's "Same Time, Next Year" follows a man and a woman who, after an initial romantic encounter at a remote hotel, rendezvous there every year for a couple of decades. This despite the fact that both were, and remain, happily married to their respective and unwitting spouses.

Neither of the two undergoes any severe moral or ethical problems in Slade's fantasy, probably because in their minds they are somehow remaining faithful to their husband and wife.

If you can accept the concept, "Same Time, Next Year" (now at the Santa Paula Theater Center) is witty, observant and even occasionally touching, if generally superficial as George and Doris develop with the times.

James and Laurie Jean Stevens are convincing as George and Doris under Gerald Castillo's assured direction; the intimacy of being married in real life may be a plus here.

And special commendation is due Jeff G. Rack's stage set, Dana Kilgore's lighting design (particularly in the opening moments) and John Nichols' sound: Only a few in Ventura County seem capable of handling a board fade, and Nichols is one of them.

DETAILS

"Same Time, Next Year" continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays through April 22 at the Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. 7th St. in Santa Paula. Tickets to all shows are $15; $12, seniors (55 and over); and $8, children 12 and under. For reservations or further information, call 525-4645. On April 27, the production will move to the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center for a month. For more information, call 581-9940.

*

Todd Everett can be reached at teverett@concentric.net.

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