Review: The Secret Garden at On Stage Productions by Melissa Ellington

secretgarden Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book The Secret Garden has inspired numerous adaptations for stage and film. The classic story follows the metamorphosis of lonely orphan Mary Lennox, a miserably difficult child who blooms into a compassionate leader. Entrusted to the care of her ailing uncle Archibald Craven, Mary defies the stern housekeeper Mrs. Medlock and scoffs at kind Martha and the other maids. As the youthful gardener Dickon Sowerby teaches Mary about the transformative power of nature, the girl bonds with his large family. When granted her wish for a piece of earth to plant seeds and grow living things, Mary knows exactly what she wants: to find the key that opens the door to a secret garden where her aunt perished many years before. Mary’s discovery of her mysterious cousin Colin leads to a touching reunion and redemption of the garden, as well as Mary herself.

Broadway fans will likely remember the 1991 Tony award-winning musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon. However, On Stage Productions presents a different musical of The Secret Garden with their current offering. This upbeat version showcases music and lyrics by Bill Francoeur and book by Tim Kelly, proving a suitable choice for the On Stage team.

As with other On Stage shows appreciated by this reviewer, director Robert Harrelson delivers an enjoyable production and inspires confidence in the actors. The cast represents a wide range of ages and artistic backgrounds, which becomes a significant strength through Harrelson’s effective direction. Sincere camaraderie shines in the performance as children and adults work together to tell a beloved story.

Experienced musical director John Norris guides the cast successfully, while remarkable producer Mandy Tenney accomplishes the countless achievements associated with an ambitious theatrical endeavor. The admirable commitment typical of On Stage events is evident as several team members pull double duty both on and off stage. Melissa Berry-Rogers provides sprightly choreography and also performs a lovely dance interlude; Gail Carter serves as Stage Manager while contributing a moving performance as Colin’s mother. Anne Snider and Chris Cheatham play important characters as well as designing scenery and lighting.

Caroline Quinn is excellent in the pivotal role of Mary. She communicates a convincing journey from despising wretch to blossoming triumph, displays an appealing singing voice, and even shares a nifty tap number. Her earnest and believable portrayal illuminates songs like the solo (and later duet) “Secret Garden.”

Tucker Privette tackles the role of Colin with vigor, creating an audience-pleasing performance that is entertaining and poignant. Led by the enchanting Ingram Trexler as Mrs. Sowerby, likeable siblings Dickon (John Carter) and Martha (Hayward Moak) invite Mary into their comforting world, aided by the rest of the good-natured family (Dominick Campbell, James Rabon, Mia Coats, and Ella Johnson). The delightful Sowerby clan presents a standout musical sequence along with Mary, “One Big Happy Family,” one of several numbers that highlight Trexler’s gorgeous voice.

Cheatham crafts an appropriately haunted portrayal of Archibald Craven, while Tim Privette becomes a forceful Dr. Craven. Debb Adams (Cook), Snider (Mrs. Medlock), Julie Smoak (Mrs. Crawford), Alexandra and Murphey White (Kanchi), Michelle Privette (Nurse), Brighton Grice (Chorus/Bellmaid), and Gloria Edlam (Chorus/Servant) give valuable performances that help to convey this compelling tale. Considerable care has been taken with the details of costumes (Gina Cotton and Harrelson), scenic design (Snider and Harrelson), lighting and sound (Cheatham and Zach Tenney). In the pre-show welcome, Harrelson warned that the play can be a “tearjerker,” and he was quite correct. A longtime fan of Burnett’s book and familiar with other stage and film adaptations, this reviewer was nevertheless surprised by the emotional impact of the final scenes and gratified by the actors’ unabashed investment in their roles.

Attending an On Stage performance is a rich experience. An environment of warmth and welcome pervades the theatre from the moment an audience member walks in the door. Thoughtful touches like actors distributing flowers after “Take a Flower to the Fair” mean a lot to viewers, especially young ones (including this reviewer’s enthralled seven-year-old). Through The Secret Garden, On Stage Productions shares an irresistible invitation with the community: Join this “One Big Happy Family” for a satisfying sojourn into a magical garden in an inspiring theatre. Performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. on April 23, 24, and 25 and at 2:30 p.m. on April 26. Visit for tickets and information, or call (803) 351-6751. On Stage Productions is located at 680 Cherokee Lane in West Columbia, SC.