The marvelous Chicago Court Theatre concludes its 60th anniversary season with a new adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical, The Secret Garden. The story focuses on ten-year old Mary Lennox, who is orphaned when her parents perish in a cholera epidemic in India.
I found it interesting that the stage and set designers decided on creating such a simple, yet powerful set for the musical. Besides the staging, the costumes were very impressive, and appeared accurate using early 20th century British upper and lower class clothing and attire. Another important note to make about this particular version of The Secret Garden is how the cultures of England and India were blended together, and connected to story. Even though the title role characters (both Cravens and Lily) were excellent singers and actors, it was really the supporting cast that really impressed me, and let the true message of The Secret Garden shine through to the audience. Jennie Sofia was indeed wonderful as Lily, the long dead wife of Archibald Craven, whose memories of her still haunt him.
The Secret Garden is a timeless musical whose story continues to reach people on a deep, personal level. The Secret Garden runs at The Court Theater (5535 South Ellis Avenue, Chicago) May 21st through June 21st, 2015. For information about The Secret Garden, the Court Theatre, or to purchase tickets, please call 773-753-4472, or visit their website. Close to the house, 4 Taviton Street, where Khan lived as a child in 1914 and where she returned while training for the SOE during WW2. Based on the beloved 1911 novel by author Frances Hodgson Burnett, the musical includes lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon. She is shipped home to England to live in her estranged Uncle Archibald Craven’s estate.

Considering that I am a singer and performer myself, musical theater has always held a special place in my heart. It was performed on Court Theatre’s small, intimate stage with an extremely simple, yet effective stage and set design. Minimal props were used, and as for the cast, it was very small, focusing on principal characters, instead of using a larger ensemble chorus.
My favorite was the gorgeous Indian sari of yellow and gold, worn by Mary’s ayah (Alka Nayyar). Moving scenes involving enchantments, spells, and dances, were intertwined, by Alka Nayyar, Mary (Tori Whaples), and Dicken (Aubrey McGrath).
Whaples was young and small, but played Mary, a bitter orphan who yearns for love, with a fire and wisdom beyond her years.
She was an excellent musician, and it was delightful to watch her prance around the stage like a bird.
It is directed by artistic director, Charles Newell, and musical direction is by Doug Peck.
With no parents and all on her own, Mary, as well as her uncle, and other members of the household, are haunted by memories of their pasts.
Nayyar is an accomplished Indian dancer, who teaches at the Old Town School of Folk Music, in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. The standout performances for me included Tori Whaples (Mary), Aubrey McGrath (Dicken), Jennie Sophia (Lily), Alka Nayar (Ayah), James Earl Jones II (Ben), Rob Lindley (Archibald Craven), Eliazabeth Ledo (Martha), and Trent Parker (Dr. Lindley played a sad man as Archibald Craven very convincingly, who is still haunted by memories of his dead wife, and Parker nails the jealous brother role as Dr. McGrath portrayed Dicken, Martha’s free-spirited brother who is rather like a wood nymph, and is always one with nature and communicating with it.

Trent Noor as Mary's kept-a-secret-cousin, was also a joy to watch as a sickly boy who feels unloved and will never get better. If you get a chance to see this wonderful show at The Court Theatre, I suggest you go see it before it is gone forever! It originally premiered on Broadway in 1991, won a 1991 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, and continues to inspire people worldwide. The staging involved black and brick steps leading up to Archibald Craven’s dreary, dark mansion, complete with foggy, gothic style, tall windows. When Mary discovers the garden key and unlocks the garden for the first time, the audience just sees her unlocking an imaginary door.
Ledo as Martha, with her strong, confident voice, willed and guided Mary to see the positive side of her situation. The musical is a message for humanity that hope and optimism can grow in even the darkest or most hopeless places.
I also recognized Jones II (Ben) as the title character of Porgy in Porgy and Bess, the last performance I saw at The Court Theatre. In the end when the entire cast is rejoicing in the garden, gently falling pink rose petals drop to the stage’s ground. I interpreted this as the creative team and director allowing the audience to use their imaginations.

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