Five things we learned about 'The Secret Garden' at Perspectives

Photo gallery: The making of The Secret Garden in Denver:

'The Secret Garden' in Denver

Perspectives is a series of panel discussions held just before the first public performance of each DCPA Theatre Company staging. ‘The Secret Garden’ panel included actors Liam Ford (Dickon), Nancy Johnston (Mrs. Medlock) and Daniel Plimpton (Lieutenant Shaw); Music Director Gregg Coffin; Scenic Designer Wilson Chin; and Choreographer Patricia Wilcox. The moderator was Litetary Associate Chad Henry. To see more photos, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. 

A melancholy mother, a feral Dickon and a necessarily
athletic pit of busy musicians

By John Moore

Senior Arts Journalist

Here are five things we learned about the DCPA Theatre Company’s upcoming production of The Secret Garden at Perspectives, held April 21 in the Jones Theatre:

NUMBER 1 A Secret Garden 340Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote The Secret Garden in 1911, suffered from depression for most of her life, which in her time was called “melancholia.” Her depression worsened when her oldest son, Lionel, died of tuberculosis in 1890. That spurred her interest in Christian Science, which asserted that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone. Her depression and her interest in Christian Science greatly informed her famous novel. “It’s not ever spoken of directly,” said Scenic Designer Wilson Chin, “but it’s all over the novel in terms of Mary’s need to be outside and avoid dark places.” Christian Scientists believe that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected not by medicine but by prayer.

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NUMBER 2Burnett is of course best-remembered for having written The Secret Garden, but the enduring book was not celebrated during Burnett’s lifetime, and at the time paled in popularity compared to her now largely forgotten Little Lord Fauntleroy. In fact, none of the author’s obituary notices even mentioned The Secret Garden at all.

NUMBER 3Nancy Johnston (pictured above), who played Mrs. Winthrope in the original Broadway production of The Secret Garden and is here in Denver playing the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock, brought her Broadway show jacket from 1991 to show the audience. Johnston was with the inaugural production from its earliest workshop days. “The minute it started being talked about as a Broadway show, eyes would light up,”  Johnston said. “We watched how people wept and laughed and took this wonderful story to heart. It was a wonderful experience.” And while generations of pre-teen girls have gravitated to Burnett’s source novel, Johnston said the musical stage adaptation is much more than a young girl’s story. “It’s about big stuff like loss, redemption, forgiveness and acceptance,” she said. Chin added that while children are naturally drawn to The Secret Garden, “It’s also a very adult story.”

NUMBER 4Chin has created a set for Denver audiences that plays with proportion to emphasize that the story revolves around an 11-year-old girl who never leaves the stage. “I wanted the world of the play to be large and operatic, so everything is scaled to make this little girl look and feel as scared and hopeless as possible before she finds redemption at the end,” said Chin. He describes the world he has created as fluid and atmospheric to match the mood of the story, which shifts over time from dark and oppressive to lightness and life. “The Secret Garden is about all the things I love about the theatre – sadness, grief and despair,” Chin said with a laugh. “But it’s also about life and hope and optimism. You have to dig deep into the sadness before you can come back up again. That makes the story that much richer. So my design was all about making sure those two extremes are portrayed.”

‘The Secret Garden’ orchestra at sitzprobe, the first rehearsal where the musicians and actors come together to run the show. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. To see more, click on the photo gallery at the top of this page.


The orchestra will feature 10 live musicians, making this the DCPA Theatre Company’s largest pit in five years. But that’s 10 people doing the job that 21 musicians handled in the original Broadway production. “This is a very athletic pit of musicians, because they cover the same ground,”  said Music Director Gregg Coffin, who began his preparations months ago by singlehandedly learning the parts all 21 musicians played in the Broadway production, instrument by instrument. “That way I could see what needed to be culled because it was ornamental, and what had to be compensated for because the actors absolutely have to hear it on the stage,” Coffin said. And if an essential sound happened to be written for an instrument that was no longer present in Coffin’s smaller musician pool, he added, “Then I needed to find other instruments that could do it. Our musicians are playing a lot more music than the original ones did, and I am incredibly proud of that group of 10 down there.”

Bonus: One extra seed to plant

Actor Liam Forde, who plays Dickon, has never performed in a professional musical before now, “so I am kind of freaking out about it,” he said to laughs. In the source book, Dickon is Martha’s 12-year-old brother. Here, Forde’s Dickon is 17 “and basically feral,” he said. “Dickon spends days and days without ever going inside. He not only talks to the animals but he has some animalistic qualities about himself. Even in the book, Dickon says, ‘I think I might be part-bunny.’ ” To which castmate Daniel Plimpton responded: “As is Liam.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

The Secret Garden:
Ticket information

The Secret Garden
The beloved classic blossoms anew in this enchanting musical full of beautiful melodies. When young Mary uncovers the key to her late aunt’s long-lost garden, she becomes determined to revive the beauty that once flourished.
Book and lyrics by Marsha Norman; music by Lucy Simon;
based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

April 21-May 28
Stage Theatre
Denver Performing Arts Complex
303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE


Previous coverage of The Secret Garden:
Five things we learned at first rehearsal

The Secret Garden: Cast List (alphabetical order)

  • Jefferson Behan: Swing
  • Elizabeth Broadhurst: Rose/Understudy Lily
  • Carey Rebecca Brown: Lily
  • Stephen Cerf: Major Holmes
  • Brandon Contreras: Albert Lennox/Understudy Neville Craven
  • Liam Forde: Dickon
  • Jay Garcia: Fakir
  • Michael Halling: Dr. Neville Craven/Understudy Archibald Craven
  • Adam Heller: Ben Weatherstaff
  • Anakeesta Ironwood: Understudy Mary Lennox
  • Nancy Johnston: Mrs. Medlock
  • Avi Levin: Understudy Colin
  • Zoe Manarel: Mary Lennox
  • Kate Marilley: Alice/Mrs. Winthrop/Understudy Mrs. Medlock/Understudy Martha
  • Sean Palmer: Archibald Craven
  • Daniel Plimpton: Lt. Shaw/Understudy Dickon
  • Sean Reda: Colin Craven
  • Erin Rubico: Swing
  • Regina Steffen: Ayah
  • Emily Walton: Martha
  • Erin Willis: Claire Holmes/Jane/Understudy Rose Lennox

Creative team:

  • Director: Jenn Thompson
  • Music Director: Gregg Coffin
  • Choreographer: Patricia Wilcox
  • Scenic Designer: Wilson Chin
  • Costume Designer: David Toser
  • Lighting Designer: Philip S. Rosenberg
  • Sound Designer: Zach Williamson
  • Projection Designer: Topher Blair
  • Voice and Dialect: Kathryn G. Maes
  • Dramaturg: Stephanie Prugh

DSA students join 25th anniversary Secret Garden concert

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