'The Secret Garden': Five things we learned at first rehearsal

The Secret Garden Jenn ThompsonJenn Thompson, photo by Hunter Canning courtesy The Actors Company Theatre of New York.

It should be expected that the DCPA Theatre Company’s season-ending production of The Secret Garden will be gorgeous to look at. “But it can’t just be beautiful for beauty’s sake,” Director Jenn Thompson told cast, crew and visitors at last week’s first rehearsal. “It has to make emotional sense. It has to make sense for the story.” 

A lot of time in pre-production, she said, has been spent in every design department addressing how to best assist the storytelling. “When we get to the finish, that ending has to be earned,” said Thompson, who was last here directing Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike in 2014. “If it doesn’t earn its place, it can’t be here.”

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The DCPA Theatre Company has ended its past several seasons with a big musical, and Associate Artistic Director Charlie Miller said the priority this year was staging a family-friendly one. “This is story for all-time, but certainly a story for now,” Miller said. “The key idea at the heart of this story that ‘hope is powerful magic.’ Mary Lennox is an incredible character who overcomes grief and tragedy and really brings life to the new world that she is living in.”

The Secret Garden has its first performance April 21 and runs through May 28 in the DCPA’s Stage Theatre.

Here are five things we learned at first rehearsal:

NUMBER 1The Secret Garden will continue the Denver Center’s expansion of its new closed-captioning pilot program for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. The DCPA introduced 10 individual devices at Tribes in 2015. For The Secret Garden, 25 will be made available to audiences for the first time in the Stage Theatre – and at every performance (with 48 hours notice). Each individual closed-captioning device is fitted with a small video screen about the size of a cell phone. The device clips onto the seat in front of the audience member like a book light, but with privacy settings that don’t distract surrounding audience members. Throughout the play, a live captioning operator sends the dialogue and other stage activity to these screens in real time. Interested audiences are asked to call 303-893-4100 to let the Denver Center know you are coming. The need for 48 hours notice is so that the DCPA can make sure a live captioning operator is present for that performance.   

The Little Mermaid. Sean Palmer. Joan Marcus

NUMBER 2This Denver Center cast is brimming with interesting connections. The magnificent Adam Heller, who plays the gardener Ben Weatherstaff, starred as the titular character in the Denver Center’s 2002 world-premiere musical The Immigrant opposite Jacqueline Antaramian, Walter Charles and Cass Morgan. That was a musical adaptation of the Denver Center’s 1985 world-premiere play by Mark Harelik of the same name – which Heller starred in when it finally landed off-Broadway in 2000.

Secret Garden Zoe ManarelDenver Center audiences also will remember Sean Palmer (Archibald Craven) as Prince Eric from the 2007 pre-Broadway engagement of The Little Mermaid in Denver. Zoe Manarel (Mary Lennox) played Lavender in Matilda on Broadway.  Nancy Johnston, who played Rose’s friend Alice and the headmistress Mrs. Winthropthe in the original Broadway production of The Secret Garden in 1991, is here playing Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper. Patricia Wilcox created the choreography for five ice-skating medalists at the three most recent Winter Olympics. She also choreographed the Broadway production of Motown the Musical that just visited Denver. Stephen Cerf, who plays Major Holmes, appeared in the Arvada Center’s 2013 musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Michael Halling was a member of the DCPA Theatre Company’s 2014 production of The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Erin Willis has appeared in The Christians, Frankenstein, All the Way, The 12 and A Christmas Carol. Jefferson Behan was in last year’s Sweeney Todd. Other returners include Avi Levin (Frankenstein and A Christmas Carol) and Kate Marilley (White Christmas). Regina Steffen (Ayah) has worked with the DCPA’s Off-Center and has performed locally at Colorado Springs Theatreworks, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Theatre Aspen and Creede Repertory Theatre.

The Secret Garden Adam Heller


NUMBER 3The most-invoked term at the first rehearsal was surely “The Dreamers,” and that simply refers to the story’s lingering, well … dead people. And their presence will impact every aspect of the design. Because of these ghosts – and the prevalence of white military uniforms of the period, “the show is quite often done with a lot of white,” said Costume Designer David Toser. “Well, get that out of your heads for this production.” And for very good reasons. White, Toser said, tends to pull focus, especially in a “thrust” stage like The Stage Theatre, where the action comes out into the audience. “These men and women need to be able to disappear and let us really focus on the primary characters,” Toser  said. “If there were in white, our eyes would keep going back to the white. Hopefully by using toning and colors, we will keep attention where it needs to be.” (Look for more on this subject in an upcoming Costume Corner column.)

NUMBER 4The Tony-nominated score is written by Lucy Simon, sister of pop star Carly Simon, and the great Marsha Norman. Music Director Gregg Coffin (Sweeney Todd) calls The Secret Garden a “plusical” – meaning half-play, half-musical. He describes the score as “beautifully lush” and drawing from many different musical sources, including Hindu music, indigenous English folk music and classical ’90s power musicals. “There is music all the way through it, but while a good amount of it drives the play forward, a good amount of it is there to give you a feel and flavor,” said Coffin. The DCPA staging will employ 10 live musicians, he added.

NUMBER 5Some of the best first-day quotes:

  • “I believe that singing is just acting on pitch.” – Music Director Gregg Coffin
  • “Dance, at its best, is always storytelling in forward motion. – Choreographer Patricia Wilcox
  • “There is a phrase going around about how you might feel buried sometimes, when  really, you have been planted. I think that’s where we are in the show. You might feel buried, but we’re planted, and we have a purpose.” – Coffin

Did you know?
Bonus: Did you know John Cameron Mitchell, co-creator and original star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, originated the role of Dickon on Broadway? (He talks about it here.)

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.

The Secret Garden:
Ticket information

The Secret GardenThe 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


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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